Teeng Akol found himself on the bottom of Western Kentucky's midcourt dogpile. The Hilltoppers' junior didn't mind in the least.
Akol scored 23 points, and former Warren Central star George Fant added 17 as WKU kept its dancing shoes on for a little while longer, earning a 74-70 win over North Texas on Tuesday night in the championship game of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Hot Springs, Ark.
The win capped a stunning run for the Hilltoppers (15-18), who earned their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2009 by winning four games in as many days. It also caps a roller-coaster season during which Western Kentucky had to deal with a midseason coaching change and the development of several key freshmen.
"I'm so happy I can't even begin to describe how I'm feeling right now," Akol said.
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The Hilltoppers' rocky season continued Tuesday night, with the Mean Green (18-14) leading by as many as 13 points in the second half.
Just as it had done throughout the Sun Belt tournament, WKU rallied. The Toppers took the lead for good at 70-68 after a three-pointer by Kahlil McDonald, who finished with 14 points. McDonald then hit the clinching free throws to send them to the most unexpected of tournament berths.
"This season has been unbelievable," Fant said. "Everyone was down on us before we got out here, saying we weren't old enough, mature enough, we couldn't guard some of the people we obviously guarded here.
"It speaks for itself."
Western Kentucky began the season 5-11, resulting in the firing of former coach Ken McDonald on Jan. 5.
Ray Harper was named interim coach, and the Toppers responded with a 3-6 start under their former assistant before closing the regular season with three wins in four games. In that span, he was made the official coach on Feb. 19, and WKU hasn't lost since.
Not even Harper could see a run like WKU's in the tournament coming. The No. 7 seed won four games in four days, giving them six in a row.
"I need a day off," Harper joked. "I'm just happy for these young men. We put in a lot of hard work."
No. 4 Connecticut 63, No. 3 Notre Dame 54: Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis scored 19 points, and Bria Hartley added 18 to help Connecticut win its fifth straight Big East Tournament championship. Connecticut's Geno Auriemma became the sixth coach to reach 800 career victories, reaching the milestone in fewer games than anybody else.
The Huskies denied Notre Dame its first Big East Tournament title. The Irish, who won the outright regular-season title for the first time, have made the tournament championship game six times and lost each one to the Huskies (29-4).
Skylar Diggins scored 16 points to lead Notre Dame (30-3). Lexington Catholic graduate Natalie Novosel had eight points, three rebounds and two assists.
Arkansas-Little Rock 71, Middle Tennessee 70 (OT): Taylor Ford's layup with 11 seconds remaining in overtime sent UALR to its third straight NCAA Tournament with a win over top-seeded Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament finals in Hot Springs, Ark.
Icellyn Elie scored a career-high 29 points to lead the Blue Raiders (26-6), who have reached the NCAAs in each of the last three seasons. Paul Dunbar graduate Ebony Rowe had 12 points and 15 rebounds for Middle.
Around the nation
Duke: Forward Ryan Kelly will miss this week's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament after spraining his right foot Tuesday during practice. Kelly, a 6-foot-11 junior, averages 11.8 points and 5.4 rebounds while creating matchup problems because he is a scoring threat on the perimeter and in the paint for the No. 2 Blue Devils.