MOBILE, Alabama (Ticker) -- Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year Chris Marcus saved one of his best performances for the season's biggest game.
Marcus collected 20 points and 18 rebounds as Western Kentucky, after five straight losing seasons, captured the Sun Belt Conference title and secured an NCAA Tournament berth with a 64-54 victory over South Alabama.
It is the Hilltoppers' first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1995, when they defeated Michigan in the opening round.
"Obviously, we're elated to be champions of the league," Western Kentucky coach Dennis Felton said. "I am extremely proud of our guys, because it was such a towering challenge to come here against a seasoned team.
Western Kentucky (24-6) blew a 10-point second-half lead and trailed 54-53 with a little over three minutes left. But it responded with an 11-0 run to avenge a January overtime loss at the Mitchell Center, the Jaguars' home arena.
Derek Robinson drained a key 3-pointer during the span and Marcus, a 7-1 junior center who was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player, made four free throws in the final 48 seconds.
"There's no feeling like it," Marcus said. "Last year, they put us out in the second round and it just stuck with us. It's been a long road from day one all the way until now. It just goes to show you that all hard work pays off in the end." Nashon McPherson had 14 points and Raynardo Curry came off the bench to contribute 11 for the Hilltoppers, who are 3-3 all-time in the Sun Belt championship game. They overcame 18 turnovers by shooting 47 percent (21-of-45) and holding a 19-6 advantage at the foul line.
Making its second straight appearance in the Sun Belt title game, South Alabama received 14 points from Virgil Stanescu.
"There was never a question that they (Western Kentucky) were the best team over the course of the season but that is not to take away from the fact that we had a chance here to win a game," South Alabama coach Bob Weltlich said.
The Jaguars were dominated on the boards by 42-20 but were just 4-of-20 from 3-point range. Ravonte Dantzler was held to three points, 10 below his average.
South Alabama has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1998.