MOBILE, Ala. (AP) -- Jeremy Evans had 20 points and 14 rebounds as Western Kentucky defeated Middle Tennessee 67-57 to win the Sun Belt Conference tournament championship and an NCAA bid on Tuesday night.
"This is a special group of kids," Western Kentucky coach Darrin Horn said. "From day one, we sought to build the program with character. The kids have been through an awful lot both off and on the court, but they never stopped believing in themselves. I'm happy for our guys more than anything."
Western Kentucky started the second half with an 8-1 run to go up by 10 and built the lead to as many as 14. Middle Tennessee would get no closer than eight as it was forced to foul in the last two minutes and the Hilltoppers connected on 12 straight free throws.
"I thought our team got off to a good start tonight and had a lot of energy, but we went through a period of time where Western Kentucky kept us off the boards," Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said.
Middle Tennessee went up 28-21 with about six minutes left in the first half, but the Hilltoppers went on a 6-0 run over the next three minutes to trim the lead to one.
Hudson's dunk temporarily ended the run, but WKU eventually tied it 31-all on a pair of free throws by Evans with 1:10 left.
Orlando Mendez-Valdez's 3-pointer just before the buzzer gave the Hilltoppers a 34-31 halftime lead.
"I told our guys at the half that we had to defend and rebound," Horn said. "If we kept rebounding and defending, it would help us to get points on the board."
Evans, a sophomore, was selected tournament MVP.
"I didn't want to leave here without winning," he said. "I just thank God for bringing us this far."