With top-seeded UT-Arlington and second-seeded Georgia State headlining the Sun Belt Conference semifinals on Saturday afternoon, most would have expected the two strongest teams throughout the year to handle their business and meet in the championship game Sunday.
Living up to its #FunBelt moniker, the underdogs of the day in fourth-seeded Texas State and sixth-seeded Troy crashed the party in New Orleans. The Bobcats ran away from the Mavericks in the second half and the Trojans’ tandem of Wesley Person and Jordon Varnado proved too much for the Panthers down the stretch.
Texas State and Troy will meet in the championship game at 2 p.m. Sunday on ESPN2 for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Texas State 83, UT-Arlington 62
UT-Arlington came into the matchup down a key piece in senior guard Jalen Jones, who injured his hand in the Mavericks’ quarterfinal victory against Coastal Carolina.
The team’s second-leading scorer averaged 12.4 points per game and started every game for the Mavericks. Kaelon Wilson got the starting nod instead.
Senior Erick Neal got UT-Arlington off to a strong start, knocking down three 3-pointers in the game’s first eight minutes to give the Mavericks an 18-12 lead.
Texas State got huge boosts from forwards Immanuel King and Nedeljko Prijovic, who heading into the contest, combined to score double figures in a total of four games on the season. The pair combined for 20 points on 8-10 shooting in the first half, sending the Bobcats to a 41-32 halftime lead.
With one of the best defenders in the conference in Kavin Gilder-Tilbury chasing conference player of the year Kevin Hervey around, the talented 6’8 forward struggled to get on track for UT Arlington all afternoon, leaving much of the Maverick offense on the shoulders of Neal to create for others and score himself.
Neal’s jumper pulled the Mavericks within four at 50-46 with 10:37 remaining, but the Bobcats would hold UT Arlington without a point until the 6:02 mark, while going on a 9-0 run to put the game out of reach.
Senior Bobby Conley and freshman Nijal Pearson outplayed the Mavericks’ backcourt, with Conley knocking down two big threes in the second half on his way to a team-high 16 points. Pearson scored 12 of his 14 points in the final 20 minutes, as the Bobcats advanced to the Sun Belt title game for the first time as a conference member.
Neal had a game-high 21 points and Hervey finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Mavericks, who will be headed for the NIT with an automatic bid as Sun Belt regular season champions.
Troy 74, Georgia State 63
With top seed UT Arlington out of the picture, it left 2 seed Georgia State in prime position to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
Standing in their path were the Trojans from Troy, who split their meetings with the Panthers, but took out Georgia State on its home floor in January.
Jeremy Hollowell got the Panthers off to a flying start with threes and another jumper as Georgia State led 12-4 after the first four minutes.
Troy came back to lead 22-21 at the 8:47 mark, but the Panthers, sparked by Isaiah Williams’ eight points, ran off a 16-0 run to lead 37-22 with 3:16 to go in the first half.
The Trojans scored the final six points to get back in the game and trailed at halftime, 37-28.
Florida transfer Devon Walker made an impact early in the second half for Troy, as he scored eight points in the first eight minutes, including a run-out slam to give the Trojans a 48-46 lead with 12:04 remaining.
Wesley Person, a day after hitting seven threes and scoring 26 points, went scoreless in the first half, but got it going in the final 10 minutes of the second half. As the teams traded the lead, Person’s layup with 5:27 to go put the Trojans ahead and they never trailed again.
Person knocked down a three, a layup, and another three to answer every Panther response.
Jordon Varnado converted a three-point play off a missed Person jumper the next possession to make the margin 10 and put away the Panthers.
Person and Varnado combined for 29 second half points after only scoring two points between them in the first half. Person finished with 16 and Varnado followed with 15 and nine rebounds. Jeremy Hollimon scored 14 points and Walker added 12 for Troy.
Williams had a game-high 19 points, and Hollowell had 15. Freshman of the year D’Marcus Simonds had 13 points but committed six of the Panthers’ 17 turnovers.
Georgia State will likely earn a postseason bid after finishing with a 20-12 record.