The Tusculum College women’s basketball team erased a 16-point deficit to upset top-seeded Lander University 70-63, Monday night in the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional Championship game at Horne Arena on the Lander campus.
With its NCAA Region title, the first in program history, the Pioneers have punched their ticket for the NCAA II Elite Eight in St. Joseph, Mo. Tusculum will carry its nine-game winning streak into its national quarterfinal match-up on March 23 as they face No. 1 Gannon University (36-0) at the St. Joseph Civic Arena.
Junior guard Jasmine Gunn led the Pioneers with 30 points, shooting 11-for-20 from the floor and a perfect 8-of-8 from the free throw stripe. Gunn, who averaged 32 points per game during her three contests in Greenwood, was named the Regional Tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
The seventh-seeded Pioneers trailed 24-8 at the 12:27 mark of the first half as the 11th-ranked Bearcats made its first eight shots from the floor. But Tusculum would outscore the Bearcats by a 62-39 margin for the remainder the game and end Lander’s school-record 14-game winning streak.
Tusculum knocked off the top three regional seeds en route to capturing the Southeast title and upping its nine-game winning streak, including four of its last five wins coming against nationally-ranked opponents.
Sophomore forward Staci Hicks added 11 points for the Pioneers, while the team’s only senior Kat Spears scored 10 markers. Six-foot-eight center Catherine Hintz added six points and a team-high nine rebounds, while freshman guard Kendal Baxter added three crucial 3-pointers for her nine points. Gunn also had six assists and three steals, while scoring her 1,600th career point and established a new South Atlantic Conference single-season record with 216 made free throws this year.
Lander, with a roster of four juniors and eight sophomores, was led by junior forward Shannon McKever’s 15 points and junior foward Tasheba Butler’s double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds). Sophomore guards Brittni Johnson and Nardia Robbins led the Bearcats with five assists apiece.
Joining Gunn on the All-Tournament team were Hintz, McKever, Butler and Francis Marion’s Nicole Mealing.
The Bearcats jumped on top early with a dominant inside game. McKever opened the scoring with a wide-open lay-up off a pass from Butler on Lander’s second possession of the game. And after Gunn spun a lay-up to tie the score at 2-2, the Bearcats went on a 12-2 run.
McKever hit a reverse lay-up off a long pass from Johnson to get the streak started, Ciara Lyons made a lay-up off Jasmine Judge’s back-court steal, Butler scored twice inside on a short jumper and open lay-up, McKever hit two foul shots, and then Kaylyn Small came off the bench and got into the act with a reverse lay-up for a 14-4 lead at the 15:44 mark.
That opened up Lander’s outside game with Mukia Myrick and Brianna Webb each hitting 3-pointers, making it 20-8 with 14:20 to go as the Bearcats were 8-for-8 from the floor at that point. Another post reserve, Keondra Barnes, came in and scored twice in the paint including an offensive rebound put-back for a 24-8 advantage with 12:27 left.
But Gunn got her game going with a driving lay-up to get Tusculum into double figures at 24-10 and added an assist inside to Hicks before Hintz made her presence felt with two close-up baskets to pull the Pioneers within 26-16 at the 10-minute mark. Lyons made two free throws for the Bearcats to end Tusculum’s 8-2 run, making it 28-16 with 9:15 left.
After Webb hit a jumper as the shot clock was winding down to give Lander a 30-20 lead with 6:25 to go. The Pioneers went on a big run to pull within a possession. Hicks got the run started with a jumper from inside the top of the key, junior Brittni Oliver hit a 3-pointer from the left corner after a steal by Baxter, and Gunn got a steal near the top of the key and drove down for a lay-up to pull Tusculum within three (30-27) with 5:15 left.
Myrick’s base-line drive for a lay-up ended the Pioneers’ 7-0 run, but Gunn answered with two free throws to pull TC back within a possession again at 32-29 with 4:29 remaining.
But both teams went cold with a series of turnovers and missed shots.
After five scoreless possessions by each team, Lander finally got on the board when Small took a pass from Johnson and made a lay-up to give the Bearcats a 34-29 advantage with 45 seconds left in the half. But Gunn got a steal and hit Spears in stride with a long pass that she converted into a lay-up that pulled Tusculum within 34-31 with 17 seconds left, and that would be the score at halftime.
The Pioneers got back into the game with a 23-10 run over the last 11-plus minutes of the first half. After Lander hit its first eight shots in the first six minutes of the game, the Bearcats were only 6-for-21 the rest of the half.
Gunn swished a jumper from near the free throw line in the first minute of the second half to cut Tusculum’s deficit to one before McKever hit one of two free throws to put Lander back up by two. After a Pioneers turnover, McKever passed back outside to Judge for an open three-pointer to give the Bearcats a 38-33 lead.
But Tusculum refused to let Lander build on that lead. Hicks hit a baseline jumper and two free throws on consecutive possessions to pull the Lady Pioneers within one, and Baxter gave Tusculum its first lead of the game with a 3-pointer from the right side for a 40-38 advantage at the 17:09 mark. Gunn, who got the assist on Baxter’s trey, then drove to the basket and scored to make it 42-38 to complete a 9-0 run.
McKever’s weak-side put-back pulled the Bearcats within 42-40. But Lander failed on its next three possessions to tie or regain the lead. Baxter made Lander pay with a long 3-pointer to give Tusculum its biggest lead of the game at 45-40.
The Bearcats answered with Robbins hitting a 3-pointer from the left corner and after Small got a steal in the Tusculum paint, Webb hit a trey to put Lander back on top, 46-45, with 13:19 to go.
Myrick’s free throw put the Bearcats up by two, but Gunn drove around several Lander defenders to tie the game at 47-all with 10:44 left.
Spears hit a mid-range jumper and a basket in the paint to put the Pioneers back on top, 51-47. After a Lander bucket, Spears made another shot in the paint to put Tusculum up by four, 53-49, with 8:42 to go. Gunn’s jumper gave the Pioneers their largest lead of the game at six points, 53-47, before McKever scored twice inside to cut Lander’s deficit back to two.
Gunn spun around a defender to give TC a 57-53 lead, but Lander tied the game on Butler’s jumper in the paint and Johnson’s driving lay-up to make it 57-all with 5:02 remaining.
Gunn’s free throws put the Pioneers back on top 59-57 with 4:41 to go and Baxter hit a long, NBA- range trey to extend Tusculum’s lead to 62-57 with 3:16 remaining.
And after Butler hit a jumper, Gunn drove inside, was fouled and hit two free throws to make it 64-59 with 2:19 left.
Butler scored another basket in the paint to pull Lander within three with 1:57 remaining, but Gunn came through for Tusculum again, splitting two defenders for another lay-up and a 66-61 advantage with 1:40 left.
After a long Bearcats possession took several seconds off the clock, Myrick was fouled on an offensive rebound and hit two free throws to pull Lander back within a possession again at 66-63 with 57 seconds left.
But Oliver got loose under the basket, was fouled, and hit a free throw for a 67-63 lead. Lander missed three shots in a row and was then called for an offensive foul, all but sealing its fate.
Hicks hit one of two free throws and after Judge’s 3-point shot rimmed out, Gunn hit two free throws with 1.8 seconds left for the game’s final points to set off a wild celebration on the bench and in the stands behind the Tusculum players.
For the game, Lander hit 25-of-66 shots from the floor (38 percent), eight of 14 free throws (57 percent), and 5-of-22 from 3-point range (23 percent).
Tusculum made 26 of 50 shots (52 percent), 14-of-16 free throws (88 percent), and 4-of-9 from behind the arc (44 percent).
Tusculum and Lander have met in the last three NCAA Tournaments. Lander eliminated the Pioneers in TC’s first-ever NCAA postseason appearance in 2008. TC knocked off the Bearcats in last year’s NCAA opening round.
Tusculum’s trip to the NCAA Elite Eight will be the Pioneers first and the fifth time a South Atlantic Conference team has advanced to the NCAA national quarterfinals.
Tusculum’s next opponent, Gannon, defeated Millersville for the Atlantic title and has the nation’s second-longest NCAA winning streak behind Division I powerhouse Connecticut.
Tweet This Post