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Troy holds on, will play for conference tournament title

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Troy built a big first half lead, then held on as Western Kentucky battled back in the second half for a 54-48 win on Monday night in Sun Belt tournament action.

The win moves the Trojans into Tuesday’s Sun Belt title game and one victory away from a berth in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Troy is already guaranteed a berth in the NIT due to its regular season conference title.

“Obviously we are very proud of this basketball team,” Troy head coach Don Maestri said. “When you get out to a big lead like we did against a good team in Western Kentucky, you know they are going to make a run which they did. When you can regain your composure and finish the game out is big thing. I was glad to see this team battle tonight when it got tough.”

Troy improved its record to 20-11 overall on the year – the program’s 17th 20-win season and ninth under Maestri. Troy’s last 20-win season came in 2004. That year Troy won the Atlantic Sun regular season title, but fell in the league tournament and faced Niagara in the NIT.

The victory is Troy’s seventh in a row – a season long – and ties for the 10th longest streak in the Maestri era. The Trojans won 10 consecutive games a season ago.

The Trojans held a 13-point halftime advantage, but allowed WKU to complete a 13-1 run to open the second stanza and claw back into the game.

Back-to-back treys by Brandon Hazzard helped Troy open up a 13-5 lead and force WKU into a timeout at the 15:31 mark of the first half. Levan Patsatsia got an offensive rebound and scored two to make it a 10-point lead.

Caden Dickerson entered for the Toppers and provided a spark knocking down a trey and then adding a lay-in. Steffphon Pettigrew picked up a tap-in, but Hazzard countered with a jumper and then two by Vernon Taylor in transition made it 25-14 and kept the momentum with the Trojans.

Pettigrew made it 29-22 with 4:44 remaining, but Hazzard countered with a 3-pointer and and again two by Taylor put Troy back up by 12.

Leading by 13, Troy held for the final shot of the first half, but was unable to get a good opportunity and went into the break up 38-25.

Hazzard was the only Troy player to reach double-figures. He scored 17 in the first half, but was held scoreless in the second. Taylor added eight points in 18 minutes off the bench.

“I was pretty focused,” Hazzard said. ” I didn’t really sleep too much last night, and I think as ball players you wait your whole life for this one moment. We were taught this plan, and just to have the opportunity was special and our team took advantage of that.

“We are still not satisfied; we want to go ahead and focus on tomorrow and take care of the whole thing.”

WKU came out strong in the second half and a two by Pettigrew dropped the Troy lead to 10. Pettigrew tacked on 3-pointer and Troy’s lead was down to 41-36 with 13:29 left in the game.

A Troy turnover led to a dunk by Jeremy Evans and a 13-1 run by the Hilltoppers. Taylor answered with a two and Troy’s first basket in more than seven minutes.

Anthony Sally scored two and then a free throw by Kerusch moved WKU within a basket, but Richard Delk countered with two for the Trojans. Troy allowed the Toppers to tie the game at 45, but Vogler took back the lead with a runner.

AJ Slaughter’s first 3-pointer of the night came with 4:40 left and it was a big one. It gave WKU its first lead since the 18:03 mark of the first half. Delk grabbed an offensive rebound and scored to give his Troy squad the lead again at 49-48.

Vogler scored an acrobatic up-and-under two with two minutes left for a 51-48 lead. Troy then had possession after a deflection with 24.8 seconds remaining, but just 13 seconds on the shot clock. Delk then hit one of the biggest shots of his career, a 3-pointer with 13.2 left, to push Troy’s lead to 54-48.

The basket was Delk’s first triple in four attempts on the night and was the Trojans’ lone 3-pointer of the second half.

“I think I may have hit one in AAU, but nothing in college,” Delk said. “That was a long time ago, but it was a big shot. I knew Mike (Vogler) was going to drive it so I tried to get open. I got it and pump faked and Pettigrew flew by, and I shot the three.”

Troy finished the game barely out-shooting WKU from both outside (20.8 percent to 18.2 percent) and overall (37.5 percent to 35.7 percent).

Dickerson missed a wild 3-point attempt with four seconds left. Pettigrew led the way for WKU (21-13) with 14 points. Preseason Sun Belt Player of the Year, Slaughter, was held to five points.

It was just the fourth time this season Slaughter scored in single digits and it broke a streak of 21 straight games in double-figures for the senior.

Troy attempted just three free throws compared to 13 for the Toppers.

The Trojans will face either North Texas or Denver on Tuesday night at 6 pm in the Sun Belt Championship game. The game will be aired on ESPN2.