- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Jordon Varnado struggled with his shooting for much of the game Sunday, but he came through when Troy needed him most.

He finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds and the Trojans defeated Texas State 59-53 in the championship game of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament at Lakefront Arena.

Sixth-seeded Troy (22-14) advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003 after winning its third game in three days and fourth in the tournament.

The fourth-seeded Bobcats (20-13) defeated top-seeded UTA 83-62 in the semifinals.

The Trojans were clinging to a 47-44 lead when Varnado made a layup with 3:48 left to start a string of 10 consecutive Troy points that he scored. When he was finished the Trojans had control with a 57-50 lead with 14 seconds remaining.

“He was struggling,” Troy coach Phil Cunningham said of Varnado. “At one point I think he was 4 for 16 from the field. That’s totally out of character for him. We kept telling him during huddles that you’re going to be fine because he’s a real conscientious young man.

“You could see he was a little shook, but down the stretch he took over and he hit some pressure free throws, too.”

Troy, which led the Sun Belt with 305 3-pointers, won despite making just 1 of 17 3-point attempts.

“We’re not a one-dimensional team,” said Trojans junior guard Wesley Person, who scored 16 points and was named the Most Outstanding Player in the tournament. “We have guys that can play off the dribble and guys who can score in the paint. We showed our versatility.”

Troy scored 24 fewer points than it had averaged in its first three victories in the tournament.

“We knew we weren’t going to score 80 points today because of the way Texas State plays defense,” Cunningham said. “They have the best halfcourt defense in the league.”

Troy never trailed in the game after pulling even at 9-9, though the score was tied twice in the second half.

Kavin Gilder-Tilbury led Texas State with 19 points, scoring 16 in the second half after playing just 5 minutes in the first half because he committed two early fouls.

“We had some jitters and that hurt us at the beginning,” Gilder-Tilbury said.

The Bobcats committed 17 turnovers and the Trojans committed five, enabling Troy to enjoy an 18-4 advantage in points off turnovers.

“It came down to too many points off turnovers,” Bobcats coach Danny Kaspar said. “We kind of shot ourselves in the foot in that area. We threw away a lot of shot opportunities.”

BIG PICTURE

Troy: The Trojans enter the NCAA Tournament with momentum after beating the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds in a three-day stretch.

Texas State: The Bobcats, who dominated a short-handed UTA team in the semifinals, could never get any consistent offense going against Troy.

STAT OF THE NIGHT:

Troy made 16 of 19 free throws and outscored Texas State by nine points at the line. The Trojans made their last 10 free throw attempts. “We won the game at the free throw line,” Cunningham said.

ROLE PLAYER:

Senior guard Jeremy Hollimon played 28 minutes off the Troy bench and took the second-most shots (15) on the team, finishing with 15 points and three rebounds in addition to making the Trojans only 3-pointer. “Jeremy Holland gets very little credit for what he has done for this team,” Cunningham said. “He comes off the bench but he’s always in the game at the end of the game.”

UP NEXT

Troy: Opens the NCAA Tournament as a No. 15 seed, facing second-seeded Duke.

Texas State: Was hoping to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997, waits to hear whether its season will be extended by an invitation to another postseason tournament.

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More AP college basketball: https://collegebasketball.ap.org

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