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Conference Championship Central

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- Teeng Akol put the finishing touches on Western Kentucky’s remarkable run.

Akol scored 23 points and Western Kentucky rallied for a 74-70 win against North Texas on Tuesday night in the championship game of the Sun Belt conference tournament.

The win caps 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.

George Fant finished with 17 points to help the Hilltoppers rally from a 13-point deficit in the second half.

Tony Mitchell scored 18 points to lead the Mean Green (18-14), who were playing in their third consecutive league championship game.

Tyler Hall hit a jumper to put North Texas ahead 55-42 midway through the second half before Fant scored the next seven points to cut the deficit to six. The Hilltoppers tied it at 59 on a basket by Akol, but they fell behind by five after Mitchell put the Mean Green up 66-61.

Western Kentucky finally regained the lead for good at 70-68 after a 3-pointer by Kahlil McDonald, who finished with 14 points.

The Hilltoppers led 72-68 in the closing seconds when North Texas’ Brandan Walton was fouled on a 3-point attempt. Walton made the first two before intentionally missing the third, but McDonald grabbed the rebound and sank two free throws with 1.5 seconds remaining to secure the win.

Western Kentucky began the season 5-11, resulting in the firing of former coach Ken McDonald on Jan. 5. The firing came one day after a chaotic loss in which Louisiana-Lafayette played the final possession of the overtime game with six players.

Ray Harper was named the Hilltoppers’ interim coach and they responded with a 3-6 start under their former assistant before closing the regular season with three wins in four games.

Not even Harper could see a run coming like what Western Kentucky did in the Sun Belt tournament. The No. 7 seed won four games in four days, giving them six wins in a row and setting the stage for their unexpected return to the NCAAs.

They did so by defeating No. 10 seed Florida International, second-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock and No. 3 Denver, along with the fifth-seeded Mean Green.