No. 1 LMU clinches unbeaten SAC season

Published 1:22 pm Monday, February 26, 2018

HARROGATE, Tenn. – In just the 15th all-time meeting between the nation’s No. 1 and 2 ranked teams in the history of Division II men’s basketball, the No. 1 Railsplitters left no doubt.

Lincoln Memorial (27-1, 20-0 SAC) led wire-to-wire to cap the regular season by clinching the outright South Atlantic Conference title and the second unbeaten SAC season in league history with an 80-65 win over the No. 2 Queens Royals (26-2, 18-2 SAC) on Saturday at Tex Turner Arena in front of a national audience.

The Railsplitters opened the game with head-spinning 13-2 run and then absorbed multiple runs for the remainder of game with a gritty defensive effort and some timely runs of their own to snap the Royals’ 10-game winning streak.

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The victory gave Lincoln Memorial its sixth straight SAC title and first outright championship since the 2015-16 campaign. It also marked just the second perfect conference season in SAC and program history, following in the footsteps of the 2015-16 team as well.

In addition to all that, the Railsplitters extended their SAC-record winning streak to 34 games and their home winning streak to 22.

“I thought we played with two things you need in a big game like this,” LMU head coach Josh Schertz said. “Everybody is going to play hard with the stakes this high, but we played with an unbelievable amount of toughness and poise. We didn’t play very poised at Queens, but I thought we really stayed poised and played with great physicality. First half at their place they knocked us around. This game I thought from the jump we were the more physical, more aggressive team.”

After that sizzling hot offensive start, the Railsplitters had to work against the nation’s 17th-best defensive unit. Lincoln Memorial shot only 42.9 percent from the field and finished 9-of-27 from three-point range. However, the Railsplitters held the Royals’ eighth-ranked field-goal percentage offense to 40.7 percent shooting, including a 29 percent clip from three.

“When we are focused, dialed in and really ready to play we are as good as anybody in the country because Queens is as good as anybody in the country,” Schertz said. “When our guys are really locked in and engaged like we were for 40 minutes we are really good. Our concentration level and our effort level were fantastic. When they made their runs it was because they are great players and a great team, not because we had a lull.”

Cornelius Taylor paced the Railsplitters with a dazzling 24-point performance to go along with five assists. The sophomore guard scored 22 of his 24 points in the first half to send Lincoln Memorial into the break with a 43-29 lead.

Dorian Pinson added 21 points, 13 rebounds and four steals in the final regular-season game of his career at Tex Turner Arena, while Emanuel Terry also had a monster game with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds and three blocks. Josh Odem added eight points, 10 boards and five assists, while the team’s fourth and final senior Trevon Shaw produced five points and five rebounds on an off-shooting night (2-for-13).

Ike Agusi led the Royals with 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Shaun Willett pitched in 15 points and six rebounds. Daniel Carr contributed 10 points, while Queens’ SAC Player of the Year candidate Todd Withers was limited to just four points and seven rebounds on 1-for-7 shooting.

The Railsplitters never trailed in the contest and led by as many as 19 points, but the game was hanging in the balance at multiple junctures in the second half.

Lincoln Memorial pushed its lead to 46-29 at the 17:52 mark on a free throw from Terry, but a 15-3 run for the Royals trimmed the deficit to five points at 49-44 with 12:49 left. The lead hovered in that vicinity until a well-timed 6-0 LMU run pushed it back to 61-48 on a thunderous dunk by Terry with 7:30 left.

Queens got back within 10 points on a bucket from Willett with 6:46 remaining in regulation before 3-pointers from Pinson and Shaw all but iced the game by extending the lead to 72-55 with 3:47 left.

Lincoln Memorial never let its lead dip below 13 points after that to beat Queens for the fourth straight time and sweep the season series for the first time since the 2015-16 campaign.

“The other thing you want to know is that all championship teams are at their best when things are the toughest,” Schertz said. “You have to be able to respond when things are difficult. Against a great team in a tough environment when things got hard, we responded.”

Now the Railsplitters direct their attention to postseason play, which begins on Wednesday with the quarterfinals of the South Atlantic Conference Championship. The Railsplitters will host Anderson for the first round of the SAC Championship at Tex Turner Arena while the semifinals and final will take place at Furman’s Timmons Arena.

Looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament, the Railsplitters’ win over the Royals all but assured that Lincoln Memorial will serve as the host site of the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional for the third time in the past four seasons. They entered Saturday’s contest ranked ahead of Queens in the regional rankings and with a win over the Royals already this season.

“Everybody starts off 0-0,” Schertz said. “We’ve obviously accomplished a lot in the regular season. You can have a great season based on what you do in the regular season. You can’t have a special season unless you perform in the postseason. We have to perform in the postseason so that’s what’s ahead of us.”

The Railsplitters will head into the postseason riding a 16-game winning streak that includes Saturday’s win over Queens and Wednesday’s hard-fought victory over Carson-Newman, both of which required a tremendous amount of grit and determination.

“This week was great for us,” Schertz said. “To have these two games, to play the way we did, respond the way we did and have to fight and play 40 minutes on both ends of the floor. We are going into the postseason understanding that when we are good we are really, really good. In the postseason it’s about finding ways to win, and we have to find ways to win.”