AP Sports Writer
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) -- Western Kentucky's George Fant had a message for his teammates following an 0-for-5 shooting performance in a win over Arkansas State on Sunday night.
"Thank you for having my back," Fant said. "I'm not going to play like that twice."
Fant proved prophetic on Monday night, scoring 17 points and grabbing 13 rebounds to help the Hilltoppers book a return trip to the NCAA tournament with a 65-63 win over Florida International in the Sun Belt Conference championship game.
The win earned fifth-seeded Western Kentucky (20-15) its second straight tournament championship and NCAA tournament berth. It followed the same script as last season, winning four games in four days to secure the school's fourth NCAA appearance in six seasons.
They capped the run, which included a thrilling last-minute win over Arkansas State on Sunday, by never trailing in the second half and holding on against the resurgent Panthers.
"It was a heck of a game; we knew it was going to be that way," Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper said. "But our guys, they continued to believe, they continued to fight and once again made plays down the stretch."
Florida International (18-14) led by as many as eight in the first half one night after shocking top-seeded Middle Tennessee, but the Panthers were unable to overcome 24-of-62 shooting.
Cameron Bell led four Florida International players in double figures with 15 points. Malik Smith had 14, Jerome Fink 13 and Tymell Murphy 11.
"We were probably a little tired; we had such a war last night," Florida International coach Richard Pitino said. "To beat a team as good as Middle Tennessee ... takes a lot out of a team."
The win caps a remarkable two-year tournament run for Western Kentucky, which survived a mid-season coaching change last year to reach its first NCAA tournament since 2009. The run included an NCAA win over Mississippi Valley State -- with President Barack Obama watching -- before a loss to eventual national champion Kentucky in the second round.
Little came easy in Harper's second season with the Hilltoppers, including a loss in the regular-season finale against Middle Tennessee.
However, Harper and Western Kentucky once again peaked when it mattered most. The Hilltoppers led 62-60 with less than a minute remaining, and Jamal Crook -- who finished with 17 points -- closed it out with three free throws in the final 23.6 seconds.
Brandon Harris added 12 points for Western Kentucky on 4-of-7 shooting from 3-point range.
It was Fant, though, who seemingly answered with a basket every time Florida International closed in -- including a pair of free throws and jumper in the second half that put Western Kentucky up 54-48.
The performance followed his five-point, three-rebound effort against Arkansas State in which he fouled out after 25 minutes.
"I was waiting for them to try and double-team right away, but they didn't," Fant said. "When I (saw) it, I knew that I was going to score at will. For me to come in here and do that, I'm really happy to help my team get a victory and get a championship."
While the Hilltoppers will play on, Florida International heads home after its first season under Pitino -- the son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Pitino was hired last April, taking over after a three-year stretch during which the school was 26-65 under former coach Isiah Thomas.
Thomas was fired after last season's 16-19 record, paving the way for the younger Pitino to leave his job as an assistant under his father. The elder Pitino was in Summit Arena on Monday night, sitting directly behind the Florida International bench as his son tried to lead the school to its second NCAA tournament appearance.
The Panthers' only other berth came in 1995, and its last winning record before this season came in 1999-2000.
"Certainly, it hurts pretty bad right now," Richard Pitino said. "But I tried to tell these guys, there's zero doubt in my mind ... they're going to look back and reflect and you're going to see a team that turned around a program that was really struggling."
Florida International used a 17-2 run early to build a 19-11 lead. Smith and Bell capped the run with back-to-back 3-pointers for the Panthers, who split the regular season series with the Hilltoppers.
The lead didn't last long, however, as Western Kentucky went on an 11-0 run to pull ahead 22-19 on its way to a 31-29 halftime lead. The Hilltoppers held the lead throughout the second half, and they can now turn their attention to another NCAA tournament run.
"When you win a championship, you win a championship," Western Kentucky guard T.J. Price said. "It all feels good. Right now, (we're) just getting the feeling back on, just like last year. It feels real good."
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