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Arkansas State's First Dance

No one stood taller than 5-foot-6 Chico Fletcher in the Sun Belt Conference championship game Tuesday night.

Fletcher, the conference player of the year, was everywhere -- scoring 21 points, handing out eight assists, grabbing two steals and pulling down three rebounds to lead Arkansas State to a 65-48 victory over Western Kentucky and the tournament title.

"We just couldn't let up on this one," Fletcher said. "We've been chasing it so long and so hard, we had to have it."

Arkansas State (18-11) earned its first-ever berth in the NCAA tournament.

"We talked about it all the time," Arkansas State coach Dickey Nutt said. "Four years ago we were the worst team in America. This shows what hard work can do for you."

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  • Western Kentucky (13-16) fell behind midway through the second half, unable to cope with the tough Indians defense.

    "We knew defense would be the key and it was," Nutt said. "They're a hard team to stop, but we felt that's what we had to do."

    The Hilltoppers, who shot 48 percent in the first half, shot just 37 percent in the second half and were outrebounded 32-21.

    "They really did a good job of mixing it up and stumping us," Western Kentucky guard Joe Harney said. "They were beating us on the boards and we knew that was a factor but we couldn't do anything about it."

    Fletcher, who earned league mvp honors for the second straight year, was also named the tournament MVP.

    Arkansas State opened the second half with a pressing, man-to-man defense and a 7-2 scoring streak to take a 39-32 lead with 16:59 left.

    Western Kentucky came back to 41-40 at 11:55 on a 8-2 run fueled by a 3-pointer by Tremain Rowles and 3-of-6 free throw shooting by Lee Lampley.

    It was the closest the Hilltoppers would com. The Indians went on a 17-2 run to stretch their lead to 58-42 with 2:03 left.

    "I'm not bragging, but we feel like we can score on anyone," Arkansas State's C.J. Pepper said. "We knew that if we could stop them, we could score and win."

    Western Kentucky scored only one field goal over 9:52 of the half.

    "We changed up on them and took away their inside offense," Fletcher said. "We wanted to try to make it hard for them to get anything in there."

    Antonio Harvey scored 15 points for Arkansas State, Pepper had 12 and Eric Beatty added 11.

    Ravon Farris and Harney each scored nine points to lead Western Kentucky.

    "I think fatigue may have had something to do with it," Harney said. "We had two tough games to get here."

    Arkansas State led 25-19 with 6:49 left in the first half. But the Hilltoppers went to a zone defense that gave the Indians problems and cut the lead to 32-30 at the break.

    Arkansas State has won eight of last 10 games, including tournament victories over New Orleans and Florida International.

    Before this year, the Indians had not won a tournament game since 1995.

    Western Kentucky, on a three-game winning streak going into the title game, beat Southwestern Louisiana and Louisiana Tech in the tourney, both of which had swept the Hilltoppers in the regular season.

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