Louisiana (21-11) vs. Western Kentucky (20-11)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Saturday, March 15, 5:30 p.m. (ET)
FACTS & STATS: Site: New Orleans Lakefront Arena (8,933) -- New Orleans, Louisiana. Television: Sun Belt Network. Home Record: Louisiana 13-2, Western Kentucky 13-4. Away Record: Louisiana 6-9, Western Kentucky 7-7. Neutral Record: Louisiana 2-0, Western Kentucky 0-0. Conference Record: Louisiana 11-7, Western Kentucky 13-4. Series Record: Western Kentucky leads, 25-16.
GAME NOTES: The final spot in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament title game will go to the winner of the matchup featuring the third-seeded Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns and the second-seeded Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
The winner will head to the Sun Belt championship game to play for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament against either Arkansas State or Georgia State.
Louisiana received a first-round bye with the third seed in the Sun Belt Tournament, and opened up postseason play on Friday with a 91-85 victory over UT Arlington in the quarterfinals. The Cajuns have won three of their last four games overall.
Western Kentucky, with the second seed in the Sun Belt Conference, earned an automatic double-bye into the semifinal round. The Hilltoppers finished the regular season with a 12-6 record - one game ahead of Louisiana. WKU closed out the regular season last Saturday with a 73-55 loss to top-seeded Georgia State.
Western Kentucky owns the lead in the all-time series, 25-16. The two squads played twice this season, with the Hilltoppers coming away victorious in both. The most recent meeting was staged on March 6 at Western Kentucky - a 75-72 Hilltoppers win.
Louisiana was on fire in the first half of Friday's quarterfinals contest with UT Arlington, netting 54.8 percent of its field goal tries, including an impressive 8-of-14 from 3-point range. The Ragin' Cajuns led at the intermission, 46-41. Arlington made a run in the second half to try and cut some of the lead away, but ended up falling a point further behind at the final buzzer. Xavian Rimmer led the team with 24 points, adding a perfect 7- of-7 shooting mark from the free-throw line. Bryant Mbamalu netted 20 points of his own, and Shawn Long tallied a double-double with 19 points and 17 rebounds. Long also recorded five blocked shots in the victory. He and Elfrid Payton has been battling all season to determine the team's top scorer. Prior to Friday's competition, Payton led the squad with 19.3 ppg, followed closely by Long at 19.2 ppg. But Payton netted just five points against UT Arlington, which was well below his average. Mbamalu, before Friday's game, averaged 11.6 ppg, but went above his total against the Mavericks.
Georgia State dominated Western Kentucky right from the opening tip last Saturday. The Hilltoppers shot just 37 percent from the floor in the first half, and trailed by 11 points as the teams broke for halftime, 34-23. It didn't get much better in the second frame, as WKU hit just 33.3 percent of its shots from the field, and fell behind even further. Payton Hulsey scored 15 points to pace his Hilltoppers, which was one shy of his career high. Chris Harrison-Docks netted 11 points off the bench, and Ben Lawson led the team with nine rebounds. T.J. Price topped the team in the regular season in scoring with 15.4 ppg, with George Fant not too far behind at 13.2 ppg, adding a team-high 6.8 rpg average. Trency Jackson comes in at 10.4 ppg, and Harrison-Docks rounds out the double-digit point scorers for WKU with 10 ppg. As a unit, the Hilltoppers are averaging 68.5 ppg through 31 games played.
Louisiana is an extremely tough team to beat, but showed some real inconsistency by shooting nearly 55 percent in one half, then 39.4 percent in the next. Payton and Long are stars, but Western Kentucky has a very well- rounded depth chart, and has had Louisiana's number this season. It will be a fight to the finish, but Western Kentucky, if the team keys on Long and Payton, should head to the conference's championship game Sunday.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Western Kentucky 77, Louisiana 73
03/15 10:30:49 ET