Conference Champs!

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 1, 2003

For the third time in the past four years -- and the second consecutive season -- the Troy State men's basketball team cut down the nets after the final regular-season game.

This time, the Trojans did it at home.

Troy State (23-5, 13-2) defeated Jacksonville (13-15, 8-8) 94-72 Saturday night in Trojan Arena to clinch a share of the Atlantic Sun Conference Championship. Mercer (22-5, 13-2) defeated Stetson 101-84 Saturday night to also clinch a share of the title. Mercer will take the top seed in the conference tournament.

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The seeding in the tournament was not on Troy State head coach Don Maestri's mind, though.

"If ever a team had to play as a team to win a conference championship, this team did," Maestri said. "We lost two all-conference players from last year and were not given a chance by any other team to win the conference championship. But this team pulled together and played a style of basketball that requires a great deal of team work and unselfishness. We had not played this pressing, up-tempo style in several years, but this team worked the defensive end of that style better than we did in the old days."

The defense was the key in the Trojans' win Saturday night. Troy State forced 22 Dolphin turnovers and turned those turnovers into 20 points.

As has been the case all year, the Trojans also scored a truck load of points from the three-point line. The Trojans shot 40 three-pointers and hit 17 of them.

"They killed us from three-point range," Jacksonville coach Hugh Durham said. "When you give up 51 points on 40 trips down the field, that doesn't speak well for your defense. We're supposed to be a good defense against the three-pointer."

The Dolphins looked like marine mammals out of water shooting the three, connecting on only three-of-22 attempts.

Despite the lop-sided score, the game was close for quite a while. The Trojans led by only 10 at the half, 43-33, and were outrebounded 22-16 in the first half.

In the second half, the only four-year senior on the team, Lovell Craig, took over. He grabbed eight of his 10 rebounds in the second half and scored 12 points as he earned his third conference championship ring. He also earned his first triple-double of his career.

"That's what I do (getting rebounds)," Craig said. "I want to do even more."

Maestri was very pleased with Craig's performance.

"Craig is a player who had to work so hard to get here," Maestri said. "He did not play much high school basketball and was not someone who people gave much of a chance to play Division I college basketball. Now he's the only Troy State player in history to get three conference championship rings."

The three other seniors all scored in double figures as well. Ben Fletcher scored 11, LaCedrick Pettway scored 12 and Marcus Milhouse scored 11.

Juniors Eddie Baker (13) and Kendrick Johnson (15) also scored in double figures and all 10 players scored.

Troy State will take the third seed into the conference touranment and will face Samford in the first round of the tournament Thursday at 7 p.m. CST. The Trojans will play 30 minutes following the Georgia State-Belmont game at 5 p.m., so the game time could get delayed.

The tournament is in Atlanta on the campus of Georgia State. It begins at 11 a.m. with Central Florida and Jacksonville State. Mercer will face Jacksonville at 1 p.m.