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Trojans earn first trip to NCAA Tournament

Associated Press

ATLANTA -- Troy State coach Don Maestri showed his players a video collection of former NBA greats to motivate them the night before the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament final.

George Mikan. Bill Russell. Julius Erving. All champions.

Now, the Trojans are, too.

Troy State, in the conference final for the second time in three seasons, beat Central Florida 80-69 Saturday to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

"Any level, any year, winning championships feels the same," Maestri said. "It's the ultimate feeling in team sports. There's no real difference."

Tournament MVP Ben Fletcher scored 19 of his season-high 29 points in the first half for Troy State (26-5), the No. 3 seed, while Rob Lewin added 17.

When it was over, fans joined the players for a midcourt celebration.

"It was as important to go to the NCAA Tournament for all of them as it was for us," Maestri said of the support.

The Trojans joined Division I in 1993 and the Atlantic Sun is their third conference -- they played for one season in the East Coast Conference and three in the Mid-Continent.

Their first two years in the A-Sun weren't very successful. They were 16-38 overall during that span, including 11-21 in league play. At one point in 1998, they were rated as the worst of the 309 teams in Division I.

But since then, they have won or shared three of the past four Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season titles.

Maestri, in his 21st year, led Troy State to the Division II tournament four times and reached the final 10 years ago. Longtime assistant David Felix has been at the school longer than Maestri, joining the staff in 1981, two years before Maestri took over.

Felix's tenure is the fourth longest among assistants in Division I.

Central Florida (21-11), the No. 5 seed, was trying to win the conference tournament for the third time, the last in 1996. Ed Dotson had 19 points for the Knights and Ray Abellard added 16.

"There's one team out of all the ones in the country that is not going to feel this way at the end of the year," Central Florida coach Kirk Speraw said. "This sits with you for a long time."

Fletcher's previous high was 24, but he tied that with five quick points after halftime. He was 4-for-10 on 3-pointers, and in the second half, with the defense wary of his range, he drove inside for three layups.

"Coach just told us before the game we just had to be real aggressive," Fletcher said. "The first couple of games it was Rob hitting the big shots. You just have to take your time to get where the defense gives you."

In the first half, he scored eight straight points -- including two 3s -- to give Troy State a 14-point lead. His quick start in the final 20 minutes extended the margin to 18, and after the Knights got within 13, he made two layups for a 67-50 lead.

"Anytime you get a lead in the championship game, you relax a little bit," Maestri said. "We tried to feel like we were playing Central Florida, not playing for an NCAA bid."

The Knights went on a 15-4 run to get within six on a layup by Dexter Lyons, and had a chance to get closer after Troy State guard Greg Davis made a free throw. But Troy Lindbeck missed a 3-pointer, and Marius Boyd failed on a rebound attempt.

The Trojans went 6-of-8 from the free throw line the rest of the way.

"I thought we were shooting ourselves in the foot a lot by not taking care of the basketball," Speraw said. "We ran very good offense at times when we didn't hurt ourselves."

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