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Velky sends Truman to Championship Sunday with late free throws

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EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. - For the first time in 19 years and just the third time in school history, the Truman State University men's basketball program will play for a conference tournament title. With just 1.8 seconds left on the clock, Jake Velky (pictured) calmly sank two free throws to give the Bulldogs a one-point lead, 68-67, before Drury sent the ensuing heave out of bounds. After a lengthy review, the call was confirmed and Nathan Messer inbounded the ball to Brodric Thomas as time expired.

"I was just proud of the way our guys competed," said Foster in his postgame interview. "To hang on and win this game is huge for us. It's win or go home and we're excited no matter who we play, (Bellarmine and Indianapolis) are both great programs. This is such a good league and it's been a great tournament so far. We'll get some rest and be prepared."

With the victory, Truman (20-9) secured its fifth-straight 20-win season and 10th all time. Four of those 10 have come under head coach, Chris Foster, and prior to the five straight, the Bulldogs had never won 20 games in a season more than two years in a row. The Purple and White have now won four in a row and eight of their last nine dating back to the second Drury loss on Feb. 1 in Springfield.

Meanwhile, Drury (21-7) failed to complete the three-game season sweep of Truman and leaves its NCAA Tournament fate up to the selection show on Sunday night. The Panthers look to have a strong enough resume as they came in at No. 6 in the most recent regional rankings.

Velky's two clutch free throws were part of a game-high 19 points to go with five rebounds and one steal in 32 minutes. After a game-high 23 points in the quarterfinals, he is averaging 21 for the tournament. The junior guard went 5-of-12 from the field including 2-for-6 from deep, which puts him in a tie for fifth with Andrew Vander Zwaag on the career three-pointers list at 211.

Zach Fischer finished with his 18th career double-double and 17th of the season thanks to 15 points, 10 boards, one block, and a steal, also in 32 minutes. The redshirt senior is now eighth on the single-season rebounding chart with 287 and is only seven points away from breaking into the top 10 for single-season scoring.

Taurin Hughes was the third and final Bulldog in double-figures with 12 huge bench points. Speaking of clutch, all three of Hughes' triples either tied the game or gave Truman the lead. Point guard, Turner Scott, continues to settle in for his first season on the court as he tied the game high in minutes with 35 while notching game highs in both assists (7) and steals (2) to accompany just two turnovers.

Entering this tournament, Drury boasted one of the best three-point shooting teams in all of Division II. Nationally, the Panthers were fifth in three-point field goal percentage (41.9) and seventh in treys made per game (11.9). Saturday night, Truman was determined not to get beat by Drury's three-point shooting. The Panthers went an abysmal 4-of-32 (12.5 percent) from deep while the Bulldogs made nine of their 29 long-range looks (31 percent). Another big difference in the game came at the free throw line where Truman made 13 in the second half to just four by Drury.

For a game that saw a combined eight ties and 14 lead changes, Truman was in complete control out of the gate. Velky scored the game's first points with a layup and the Bulldogs led by as many as 11 in the early going including 19-8 and 22-11. Once it was 22-11 at the 10:16 mark, Drury answered with nine-straight points to cut the margin to two, 22-20. The Panthers wouldn't take their first lead until there were just over five minutes until the intermission and they were up by one, 27-26. Drury went on to take its biggest advantage of the night at four including 32-28 and 34-30 before the halftime score of 36-36. To give you a sense of how tight it actually was, both teams shot 14-of-34 from the floor in the first half.

In the second period, both teams continued to go shot for shot, but Drury picked up its third and final four-point lead of the day, 57-53, with 9:16 left. Truman responded with an 11-2 spurt, though, and looked to have the game put away as it was up five, 64-59, at the 2:47 mark. The Panthers final advantage didn't come until there were just 11 seconds remaining as their leading scorer, Isaac Johnson, converted a layup to go up one, 67-66. Right before that, Fischer missed a pair of free throws that could have put the Purple and White up three. Back on the Bulldogs' end, Velky took the ball coast to coast and was fouled by Johnson as he attempted a runner down the left side of the line before the game-winning free throws.

Next up, the two seed, Truman, will face top-seeded Bellarmine in the finals on Sunday with the tip set for 3:30 p.m. The Knights beat the eight seed, William Jewell, in the quarterfinals and the four seed, Indianapolis, in the semifinal round. When Truman and then-No. 7 Bellarmine met in Kirksville on Feb. 17, the Knights won by 12, 82-70.


Courtesy of Truman State Athletics

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