Carson-Newman upsets LMU to claim SAC tournament championship

GREENVILLE, S.C. – The Carson-Newman Eagles (18-13) shot 46.4 percent in the second half and limited the third-ranked Railsplitters (29-2) to a paltry 32.3 percent mark over that same span to capture the 2015 South Atlantic Conference Men’s Basketball Championship title with a 63-48 win at Timmons Arena in Greenville, S.C. on Sunday.Carson-Newman earns the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division II Championship, while Lincoln Memorial will have to wait to learn its postseason fate during a live selection show at the at 10:30 p.m. Sunday night. The Railsplitters were ranked No. 1 in the final Southeast Region poll of the regular season, and they remain the favorite to receive the region’s top billing following losses by both UNC Pembroke and Mount Olive.

Sunday marked Lincoln Memorial’s third straight appearance in the title game of the SAC Championship and the fourth in the past five seasons. The Railsplitters are now 2-2 in those contests during the Josh Schertz era.

The first nine minutes were a microcosm of what would be arguably the Railsplitters’ worst offensive effort of the season. Lincoln Memorial missed its first 13 field-goal attempts, as the Eagles raced out to a 14-2 lead on a Mason Bates three-pointer with 10:48 left. Emanuel Terry (Birmingham, Ala.) accounted for LMU’s only points over that span with two free throws at the 13:29 mark.

It was Saturday’s hero that finally and briefly kick started the Railsplitters as Gerel Simmons (Accokeek, Md.) broke the field-goal drought with a layup at 10:20. Simmons hit two free throws just over a minute later to trim Carson-Newman’s lead to 18-8, and Lorenza Ross (Savannah, Ga.) rolled in a contested layup at the 8:28 mark to make it an 18-10 game.

Two Carson Brooks free throws extended the Eagles’ lead back to double figures at 20-10 with 7:38 left in the half, but Lincoln Memorial countered with a 13-2 punch, taking a one-point lead (23-22) on a Luquon Choice (Laurens, S.C.) jumper from the top of the key at the 4:14 mark.

After that fleeting offensive flourish, the Railsplitters went cold again as the half winded down. Lincoln Memorial missed its next three shots and turned the ball over twice, while Carson-Newman used a 6-0 spurt to build a 28-23 lead with 32 ticks left. Tim Pierce (Albany, Ga.) buried a jumper as time expired to cut LMU’s halftime deficit to 28-25.

Keenan Peterson (College Park, Ga.) opened the second stanza with a bucket to pull the Railsplitters to within one, but that was the last good feeling LMU would have for the remainder of regulation.

In a flash, a one-point deficit turned into a 13-point hole as the Eagles ripped off a 14-2 run over the next passage of play, which was capped by a Charles Clark three-pointer at 11:53. The Railsplitters went 1-for-10 from the field over that span.

A triple from Pierce and a bucket by Peterson chopped the Carson-Newman lead to 42-34 with 10:47 remaining, but two Sawyer Williams free throws and another trey from Clark widened the gap to 47-36 with 8:43 left.

Another Pierce layup clipped the margin to single digits for the final time at the 8:17 mark, as a 6-0 spurt pushed the Eagles’ lead to 53-38 with a hair over five minutes left.

The lead grew to 17 on a steal by Jared Johnson and a layup on the other end by Clark with two minutes remaining, while two Johnson free throws pushed the C-N advantage to 61-42 at 1:38.

Carson-Newman’s defense befuddled the Railsplitters for the second time this season. The Eagles limited Lincoln Memorial to 37.7 percent shooting in an 87-72 win at Tex Turner Arena on February 4, and they improved upon that mark in Sunday’s contest.

The Railsplitters finished shooting 35.1 percent (20-for-57) from the field, 14.3 percent (2-for-14) from three-point territory and 60 percent (6-for-10) from the free throw line. It marked only the second time this season that the Railsplitters attempted fewer than 10 free throws.

Lincoln Memorial went just 10-for-31 (32.3 percent) in the second half.

The Eagles were even worse than the Railsplitters in the opening half, shooting 32 percent (8-for-25) over that span. But Carson-Newman made 13 of its 28 second-half attempts to outscore Lincoln Memorial by 12 points.

Carson-Newman absolutely owned the glass, accounting for a 51-31 rebounding margin. The Railsplitters have not been outrebounded by 20 boards since Lenoir-Rhyne accomplished that feat on February 28, 2007.

Peterson was the only Railsplitter to log double figures, scoring 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting while leading the team with six rebounds. Simmons and Pierce pitched in nine points apiece, while Curtis McMillion (Fayetteville, N.C.) and Paul Woodson (Cincinnati, Ohio) chipped in six points. Woodson scored all six of his points in the last 1:30 of regulation.

Clark carried Carson-Newman past the Railsplitters for the second time this season, scoring a game-high 23 points to go along with nine rebounds and a pair of assists. Clark scored 30 points against Lincoln Memorial in the first meeting back on February 4.

Williams, Brooks and Josh Rogers all hauled in 10 rebounds apiece, while Brooks chipped in 13 points and three assists. Williams tallied eight points and a pair of assists while playing all 40 minutes.

The Railsplitters are assured their fifth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Lincoln Memorial will learn its opening round opponent as well as the site of the upcoming NCAA Division II Southeast Regional via a live selection show that can be viewed here. The show starts at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time.

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