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Western Kentucky 73, New Mexico St. 72
Posted: Tuesday March 05, 2002 02:32 AM
Western Kentucky
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Bowling Green

New Mexico St.
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Las Cruces

NEW ORLEANS (Ticker) -- Patrick Sparks nailed a jumper at the buzzer as 21st-ranked Western Kentucky moved into the championship game of the Sun Belt Conference tournament with a dramatic 73-72 victory over New Mexico State.

Sparks took an inbounds pass at the right sideline and drilled a jumper from the corner to give Western Kentucky (27-3) its 17th consecutive victory. He was mobbed by teammates and cheerleaders afterward.

"I wasn't sure on the time so I just put it up," Sparks said. "I turned around and some big cheerleader hugged me. I haven't ever hit a shot like this to win before." The Hilltoppers will face Louisiana-Lafayette in Tuesday's title game.

The final minute featured numerous twists and turns as New Mexico State (20-12) attempted to keep its NCAA hopes alive. James Moore's two foul shots gave the Aggies a 69-66 lead with 38 seconds left.

Derek Robinson answered with a pair from the line to pull Western Kentucky within one point and the Hilltoppers forced a turnover. Robinson fed Filip Videnov for a 3-pointer and a 71-69 advantage with 17 seconds left.

"I thought it was a great, great basketball game played by two very determined teams who played like they understood there was a championship on the line," Western Kentucky coach Dennis Felton said. "If we would have lost this game, I would not have been that disappointed." New Mexico State called a timeout anf Eric Channing hit a 3-pointer and a 72-71 edge with three seconds left. Channing, the lone senior on the team, led the Aggies with 24 points.

"We felt pretty good with only 2.8 seconds left but still gave them time to get off a pretty good shot," Channing said. "They executed a very difficult play and they made a very difficult shot at the end." Chris Marcus finished with 18 points and seven rebounds to lead Western Kentucky, which is seeking its second straight Sun Belt crown. The Hilltoppers defeated South Alabama in last year's title game.

Western Kentucky dominated the first half, limiting the Aggies to eight baskets as it built a 38-23 halftime lead. Sparks nailed a 3-pointer with 35 seconds later to cap the scoring in the first 20 minutes.

New Mexico State immediately fought back behind the hot shooting of Channing and Moore to grab a 45-44 lead on Channing's basket with 11:48 remaining. The duo combined for 13 of the Aggies' first 22 points of the half.

"We couldn't play much better than we did in the second half," Aggies coach Lou Henson said. "In the first half, we didn't do a bad job, but not nearly as good a half as we had in the second." Robinson and Sparks combined to made 11-of-20 shots for 29 points while David Boyden added 13 and nine rebounds. Western Kentucky held a commanding 35-21 edge on the glass.

Moore scored 17 points and Jason Fontenot added 15 for New Mexico State, which made 8-of-14 from beyond the arc. The Aggies shot a sizzling 68 percent (17-of-25) in the second half.

"They shot 68 percent and 61 percent from three, which would usually be disappointing," Felton said. "At the beginning we played a little soft, after that stage they just hit so many highly contested shots." The Hilltoppers have not lost since a 61-58 defeat at South Alabama on December 30.