NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana Troy led by just one-point with under two minutes to play, but the Trojans dug deep to topple Texas State 59-53 to win the Sun Belt Championship and advance to the NCAA tournament.
The win marked not only the first Sun Belt tournament victory in school history but also the second NCAA tournament appearance in Troy’s prestigious program existence.
After going into halftime leading 27-21, the Trojans (22-14) did not trail at any moment in the second half. The last time Troy was down was at the 10:06 mark of the first half.
Despite the strong showing, the outcome was far from decided after a free throw by Nijal Pearson got Texas State (20-13) within range of taking back the lead in the final two minutes.
That would never come to fruition as the duo of Wesley Person and Jordon Varnado—as they have done all tournament long—closed out the game on an 8-3 run to capture the championship.
Just 14 seconds after the free throw cut Troy’s lead to one, Varnado bullied his way into the paint to get a layup. On the following possession, Troy was able to force a turnover from Pearson that allowed the Trojans to burn nearly 30 seconds on the clock.
Texas State, which held Troy to two of the three lowest scoring outputs on the season, again turned the ball back over to the Trojans off an Immanuel King offensive foul with 23 seconds remaining.
The Bobcats were forced to immediately foul, which sent Varnado to free-throw line where he calmly sank both shots. A long 3-point shot by Ojai Black was off the mark, Varnado was fouled again and he connected on two more free throws to put Troy up 57-53 with eight seconds left.
Kavin Gilder-Tilbury, who was the leading scorer in the game with 19 points, hit a 3-pointer with eight seconds left, but it would be to no avail as Person scored the game’s final points on two free throws with four seconds remaining.
“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.”
Stat of the Game
Against a Texas State team that came into the game allowing just 56.5 points per game in the Bobcats’ first two tournament games, the narrative was that Troy would need to continue to be hot from 3-point range to win. That, as it would turn out, somehow was not needed as Troy shot just 1-17 from 3-point range. Jeremy Hollimon scored the lone three on the night. However, Texas State was just 6-17 from behind the arc to negate what was lost from the lack of threes.
Troy led by 10 in the first half yet the lead never grew above six in the final frame. Texas State tied the game at two separate points in the second half but could not overcome a stiff Troy defense that held the Bobcats to 41.7 percent shooting on the afternoon. It was a show from Jordon Varnado and Wesley Person in the second half as Varnado had 12 in the final 20 minutes while Person added 10.
• Troy was announced as the No. 15 seed in the East Region and will face No. 2 seed Duke on Friday in Greensville, S.C.
• This will be the second appearance in March Madness in school history with the other being when Troy faced Xavier on March 21, 2003.
• The Trojans trailed for just 3:02 in the entire game with all of that being in the first 10 minutes of the game.
• Jordon Varnado was the key component in a Trojan offense that had a 30-22 advantage in the paint.
The Trojans will take on the Atlantic Coast Conference champion Duke in the first round on Friday in Greensville, S.C. Information to purchase tickets can be found on TroyTrojans.com. For more information on Troy men’s basketball, follow the team on social media at @TroyMensHoops or visit TroyTrojans.com.