HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — The Toppers didn’t partake in any more late theatrics or postgame celebrations Monday night at Summit Arena, because they did something in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament they haven’t done in three seasons.
Troy senior forward Richard Delk hit a 3-pointer with 13.2 seconds to play, giving the Trojans (20-11) a two-possession lead and a 54-48 win.
Western (21-13) came back from 16 points down in the first half to lead 49-48 with 4:30 to play, but Troy held the Toppers scoreless from that point on. Head Coach Ken McDonald called Western’s performance a tale of two halves.
“I didn’t think our defensive intensity and our rebounding effort was there in the first half, and it dug us a pretty good hole,” McDonald said. “I think in the second half, we fought pretty hard to get back in position to win the game and just couldn’t finish it out.”
With a loss to Troy, the fourth-seeded Toppers end a run in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in the semifinal round, and according to Western officials, will not accept a postseason bid to anything but the NCAA or National Invitational Tournament.
In all likelihood, Monday night’s game will be the last for seniors A.J. Slaughter, Jeremy Evans, Anthony Sally and Nemanja Milosevic. Despite scoring only five points in his final collegiate game, Slaughter said he came away with positives through a rough senior year.
“It’s been up and down, but the biggest thing I look at all the time is that we stuck together and fought through the hard times,” Slaughter said. “That’s what I’m going to look back most on — that we stuck together.”
And Western did some of that sticking together against Troy.
The Toppers trailed the Trojans 40-25 at the half but cut the deficit to four points when junior forward Steffphon Pettigrew hit a 3-pointer with 13:33 to play. Western then took its only second-half lead at the 4:43 mark of the second half on a Slaughter 3-pointer — three of his five total points — but lost the lead on the other end when a Delk layup made it 49-48 in the Trojans’ favor.
Troy added another layup and Delk’s 3-pointer to finish out the game on a 7-0 run.
“We played our hearts out the second half,” junior forward Sergio Kerusch said. “We cut the lead down. You saw a team just lay it all out there, and the end result was that we just couldn’t pull it out this time.”
Throughout Troy’s second-half collapse, the Trojans shot 24.1 percent from the field.
Slaughter insisted that the Toppers’ own shooting woes — where they went a combined 4-of-24 from 3-point range and shot 37.5 percent on field goals for the game — wasn’t about playing a third game in as many days.
“It was definitely some execution stuff, some miscommunication,” Slaughter said.
Western put itself down and nearly out early on, as the Toppers trailed 15-5 at the 14:25 mark of the first half. The Troy lead grew to as many as 16 points before the first 20 minutes had passed, and Troy’s Brandon Hazzard finished the half with a game-high 17 points.
Pettigrew led the Toppers with 14 points, and Kerusch added 12 in what McDonald called a “difficult” end to a season that began with so much hope.
“This is a tough day if you’re a part of the program — no question,” McDonald said. “As a coaching staff, from the team standpoint and the fan standpoint.
“This is a tough day, but we will be back.”