HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — At least one tournament darling from last year is assured another NCAA berth.
A.J. Slaughter scored 18 points, and Western Kentucky beat South Alabama 64-56 on Tuesday night to win the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. The Hilltoppers wasted a 15-point first-half lead, but recovered in time to wrap up their 21st NCAA tournament berth.
Western Kentucky reached the round of 16 last March and provided one of the NCAA Tournament's most spectacular plays when Ty Rogers sank a desperation three-pointer over three defenders to beat Drake in the first round.
"Now we've got to get to the Final Four," Coach Ken McDonald deadpanned. "I'm just joking, but we do want to advance."
The Hilltoppers (24-8) nearly ended up in the same position as Davidson, which reached the NCAA quarterfinals last year, but is now holding out hope for an at-large bid after losing in the Southern Conference Tournament. Western Kentucky trailed 43-39 in the second half Tuesday, but went on a 14-3 run to take control.
"They bent, but they didn't break," South Alabama's Domonic Tilford said. "They took our punch and came back harder."
Western Kentucky finished five games ahead of South Alabama in the conference standings. The Hilltoppers also beat the Jaguars twice, but those wins were by a combined 11 points, close enough to give South Alabama hope going into their third matchup in the title game.
The Hilltoppers appeared headed for a rout when they scored the game's first 11 points. Slaughter opened the scoring, and Steffphon Pettigrew added nine straight of his own before South Alabama's early drought finally ended.
"You can't spot a team like Western Kentucky the points that we spotted them," South Alabama Coach Ronnie Arrow said.
Pettigrew and Orlando Mendez-Valdez made three-pointers to give Western Kentucky a 19-6 advantage, and Slaughter's floater made it 27-12. It was 35-25 at halftime.
Western Kentucky finished the half with 10 offensive rebounds against a South Alabama team that had outrebounded its previous nine opponents. Incredibly, only one South Alabama player was credited with a rebound before intermission. DeAndre' Coleman finished the half with four, and the Jaguars also had seven team rebounds.
"They kicked our tails on the boards," Arrow said. "That was the difference in the game. ... For them to do that to us, that's a feather in their cap."
South Alabama (20-13) started the second half on an 18-4 run, and Tilford's three-pointer put the Jaguars ahead by four with 12:46 remaining. Western Kentucky answered with seven straight points, including a three-pointer by Slaughter that put the Hilltoppers ahead 44-43. After Coleman's three-point play tied it at 46, the Hilltoppers scored another seven in a row.
Coleman's three-point play with 2:52 remaining cut Western Kentucky's lead to 60-56, but the Jaguars didn't score again.
"We wanted to take their confidence away the first four minutes," said Slaughter, who starred at Shelby County High School. "We knew they were going to fight back ... but we stuck together."
Coleman led the Jaguars with 27 points.
Pettigrew, an Elizabethtown graduate, scored 15 points for Western Kentucky, all in the first half. Mendez-Valdez scored 10 points with eight assists.
The Hilltoppers went 14-for-14 from the free throw line — they weren't about to allow the Jaguars to rally a second time.
"We really feel like we want to dominate this conference," McDonald said. "And the guys have done a great job buying in and holding themselves accountable."
McDonald, who took over at Western Kentucky last April after Darrin Horn left for South Carolina, didn't speculate much on Western Kentucky's seeding in the NCAA Tournament. The Hilltoppers are a different team this year — they no longer have Rogers, for example — but they did beat Louisville 68-54 back in November.
"I'm looking at us as a four seed," McDonald joked, knowing that's extremely unlikely. "We're going to have to sit back. We're excited about whoever we're going to play."