Western Kentucky becomes March’s first Cinderella story

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Every Cinderella team in March needs a good luck charm. Good thing Western Kentucky’s is its coach.

The Hilltoppers reeled off four straight wins in the Sun Belt tournament and clinched an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament by rallying past North Texas in Tuesday’s final, 74-70. That makes coach Ray Harper 6-0 since taking over as head coach on a permanent basis a little more than two weeks ago. Clearly, he’s got the right touch.

How else to explain Western Kentucky earning its 22nd bid to the Big Dance with a 15-18 record?

Before the tourney began, the Hilltoppers, who started the season 5-14, had roughly a 1.1 percent chance of winning the automatic bid. With teams like Middle Tennessee State (25-6) and Denver (22-9) around, that was easy to explain. Even North Texas – with its NBA-caliber forward Tony Mitchell – seemed to be in control Tuesday.

The Mean Green, behind a few Mitchell baskets, took a 49-42 lead early in the second half, and seemed to be in control from there. They had a nice cushion until WKU went on an 8-2 run, tying it at 59-59 with less than six minutes left.

Then things got slightly silly.

Western Kentucky finally took the lead for good on a Kahlil McDonald 3-pointer with 1:12 left. North Texas had a few chances, but three missed shots – including a questionable shot by Brandan Walton – hurt it. When O’Karo Akamune made a basket on a missed free-throw, Western Kentucky seemed to have things wrapped up until it committed a foul on a Walton 3-pointer.

He made the first two, missed the third on purpose, and that was it.

The Hilltoppers will probably now receive a 15 seed for the NCAA tournament, but given the roll they’re on, who says they can’t win?

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