Men’s hoops wins conference, advances to play in March Madness

(PHOTO/ Joshua Thurston)
(PHOTO/ Joshua Thurston)
Senior DeVon Walker and the Trojan men defeated Texas State to claim their first-ever Sun Belt title and second March Madness invite.
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Wesley Kirchharr

Staff Writer

Michael Shipma

Sports Editor

Troy has punched its ticket to the big dance.

Troy defeated Texas State 59-53 to win its first Sun Belt Conference Championship, as well as a spot in the NCAA Tournament. It will be the Trojans’ first appearance in March Madness since 2003 and second ever.

On Friday they will face second-seeded Duke, which is a favorite to win the national title this year.

The Trojans (22-14, 11-8 Sun Belt), who entered the Sun Belt Conference Championship tournament as a sixth seed, were led by sophomore Jordon Varnado’s 18 points and 12 rebounds.

Junior Wesley Person had 16 in the game on 4-12 shooting. Person and Varnado combined for a perfect 14-14 shooting from the free throw line.

“I’m very proud of our team for fighting through fatigue and a very physical Texas State team,” Head Coach Phil Cunningham said. “I’m proud of the perseverance they showed and the poise they had down the stretch. They made a great run, but we were able to hold them off. I’m very proud of what this team accomplished this week.”

Following a win over Georgia State in the semifinal of the Sun Belt tournament, Troy advanced to the conference championship game for the first time since the 2010 season. Over the course of their four-game tournament run, the Trojans beat their opponents by an average of just over 14 points per game.

Troy rolled into Sunday’s matchup on a five-game win streak with a title on the line, and never trailed after evening the score at 9-9 midway through the first half. It was a defensive battle from start to finish, as Troy shot just 35 percent from the field, compared to 41.7 percent from Texas State.

Turnovers were the difference in the game, with the Trojans giving it up five times to the Bobcats’ 17. Cunningham’s Trojans turned those turnovers into 18 points.

Cunningham’s bench also came through to help score points in a game full of missed shots, as senior Jeremy Hollimon scored 15 of the bench’s 17 points in the game.

Senior forward Kavin Gilder-Tilbury was the thorn in the Trojans’ side all afternoon, scoring 19 points, including 4-7 from three-point range. Gilder-Tilbury’s three point shot while getting fouled with just under five minutes remaining cut Troy’s lead to one after the free throw.

Gilder-Tilbury hit three threes in the final five minutes of the game, but Troy hit all eight of its free throw attempts in that same timespan to keep the lead.

Person’s performance Sunday also earned him tournament MVP, averaging just over 21 points per contest. He also shot 18-23 at the free throw line in the tournament.

Troy defeated the No. 11-seed App. State before topping the No. 3 seed Georgia Southern. Troy was the lowest seed in the semifinal round before knocking off No. 2 Georgia State and No. 4 Texas State.

Troy played all those games in the span of five days, winning each by an average of just over 14 points.

The duo of Person and Varnado led to a dominant performance in the tournament and will look to carry that momentum going into March Madness.

On average, Troy also had three players scoring in double figures in the tournament.

The Trojans will now face the No. 2-seed Duke Blue Devils on Friday, March 17. Tipoff is scheduled for 6:20 p.m. CT, with TBS televising the game.

Troy will be facing the ACC champions in Greenville, South Carolina, at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena. It will be the first meeting between the two teams, with the winner of this game advancing to play the winner of South Carolina versus Marquette.