Five NCAA Tournament spots filled

By United Press International   |   March 8, 2003 at 11:40 PM
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Arizona and Kentucky are the top teams in the country and headed to the NCAA Tournament, but the first ticket to college basketball's showcase event was punched by Troy State.

Ben Fletcher scored a career-high 29 points Saturday to lead Troy State to an 80-69 victory over Central Florida in the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament championship game in Atlanta.

It will be the first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance for Troy State (26-5), which moved to Division I in 1993-94 after establishing itself as a Division II powerhouse. Don Maestri has served as the Trojans' coach for 21 years.

"This is a great win for our team, our school and the city of Troy," Maestri said. "All 10 of these kids have sacrificed a lot for the success of the team and I'm proud of what they have accomplished."

Fletcher, the tournament MVP, making four three-pointers and scoring 19 points in the first half, during which Troy State built a 51-38 lead.

The Trojans are not the only newcomers to the field. The second berth was secured by North Carolina-Asheville, which also is set to make its first NCAA tournament appearance.

North Carolina-Asheville became a strong candidate for the NCAA Tournament's play-in game after an 85-71 victory over Radford in the Big South championship at Lynchburg, Va.

The Bulldogs (14-16) are the first entrant with a losing record after the fifth seeds swept through the conference tournament. Tournament MVP Andre Smith led five players in double figures with 18 points as North Carolina-Asheville became the 17th team with a losing record to reach the NCAA Tournament.

Austin Peay was co-champion of the Ohio Valley Conference with a 13-3 mark and posted three-point wins in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the tournament. The Governors (23-7) claimed the fifth NCAA Tournament berth in school history with a workmanlike 63-57 victory over Tennessee Tech in the title game in Nashville.

"We were picked fifth in the preseason, but I thought we could be better," Austin Peay coach Dave Loos said. "No way would I have predicted that we would win the regular season and be sitting here today."

East Tennessee State earned its sixth trip to the NCAA Tournament with a 97-90 victory over Chattanooga in the Southern Conference championship at North Charleston, S.C. The Buccaneers (22-8) shocked top-seeded College of Charleston in the semifinals and rode another strong performance from freshman Tim Smith to the title.

Smith, the conference freshman of the year, was named Most Outstanding Player after scoring 25 points. He had 17 in Friday's upset for East Tennessee State, which last reached the NCAA Tournament in 1992.

"It's been a long, tough road and it's great to be here," Buccaneers Coach Ed DeChellis said. "We've got young kids who live to play hard and win. Tim is a phenomenal player who works so hard and I love to see those guys come out with a win."

The championship game drew 4,107 fans as well as protesters from the NAACP outside the arena. The organization also was present at last season's NCAA Tournament contests in Greenville in support of a boycott swirling around the presence of the Confederate flag in South Carolina's state flag.

Pennsylvania (21-5) maintained its stranglehold on the Ivy League title, winning the regular-season crown with a 69-52 victory over Cornell. The Quakers posted their 14th straight win, captured their third straight Ivy crown and earned their eighth NCAA bid in the last 11 seasons.

The Ivy League does not hold a postseason tournament, sending the regular-season champion to the NCAAs.

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