VIDEO: Postgame press conference
GREENVILLE, S.C. – Carson-Newman (17-13) raced past Newberry (20-10) with a strong second half en route to an 82-72 triumph in the South Atlantic Conference tournament semifinals. Carson-Newman faces top-seeded and third-ranked Lincoln Memorial in the title game Sunday at 4 p.m. at Timmons Arena.
Carson-Newman makes its first championship game appearance since 2002, when it pounded Wingate 76-62. The Eagles had lost four straight semifinal games.
"We're thrilled to be in this situation," head coach Chuck Benson said. "You want to have an opportunity to play for a championship and we have put ourselves in that situation in spite of playing a very sloppy first half. We were able to put together a nice second half and got the win."
Lincoln Memorial heads into the title game off a tight 67-64 win over Queens. Gerel Simmons nailed a corner three with 10 seconds left to propel the Railsplitters to the win.
The Eagles appeared to be headed to a fifth consecutive SAC semifinal loss when Newberry took a 40-34 lead into the lockerroom. A 5-0 Newberry run extended the Wolves lead out to nine not even 90 seconds into the second half. However, that's when Carson-Newman's offense started to click. A 7-0 run featuring back-to-back and-ones from Charles Clark (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) and Sawyer Williams (Owenton, Ky.) brought the Eagles within two just two minutes later.
"We came out flat to start the game; we just didn't have the zest that we needed," Benson said. "The first half was all Newberry, they played great and deserved to be leading. But that rattled our cage and woke us up a little bit. We challenged the kids in the locker room to show fight and effort, they responded."
Carson-Newman extended its run to out to a 15-5 advantage to take its first lead since the first half at 50-48 off a Clark steal and fast break slam with 15:14 to go.
A 10-2 run featuring a trey from Clark and a baseline jumper by Mason Bates (Cookeville, Tenn.) powered the Eagles to their first double-digit lead of the game at 64-54 with 6:40 remaining.
Newberry got within eight in the final 30 seconds; however, two Clark free throws set the final margin at 10.
Clark was herculean for the Eagles in victory. He reset his career high with 33 points. He was 10-for-16 from the field, 3-of-9 from deep and 10-of-13 from the charity stripe. First team All-SAC forward Carson Brooks (Knoxville, Tenn.) dropped 17 points and collected eight rebounds.
Josh Rogers (Bristol, United Kingdom) and Sawyer Williams (Owenton, Ky.) rounded out the Eagles' double-digit scorers with 11 apiece.
Carson-Newman outscored the Wolves after halftime 48-32 on a blistering 58.3 percent shooting in the second half. The Eagles hit 26-of-34 free throws, including 19 in the second half. It marked the first time since the Eagles' December win over Tennessee Wesleyan where Carson-Newman sank more than 25 free throws in a game.
Clark's offensive heroics were nearly matched by Newberry senior Dondray Walker. Walker scored a season high 28 points after connecting on the first eight shots he took. Unfortunately for the Wolves, he was largely the extent of Newberry's offense. Only Gerald Evans finished on the plus side of 10 points, but he was an inefficient 3-for-10 from the field.
The Eagles held Newberry's leading scorer, Demarkus Smith, to eight points, more than half under his season average of 17 a game.
Carson-Newman wins its seventh consecutive game against Newberry.
"Not that preseason means anything," Benson said. "But we were expected to be in a rebuilding mode. Collectively as a team, we thought we could be more than that. We've had guys continue to get better as the year has gone along like Carson and Sawyer. You've got new guys like Charles and Mason Bates who have stepped up. We're just fortunate that we are still playing at this point."
C-N will play in its fourth ever SAC title game Sunday. The Eagles beat Wingate in 2002, lost to third-seeded Catawba as the fourth seed in overtime in 1999 and scored an upset win over two-seed Lenoir-Rhyne as the fifth seed in 1995.
The Eagles and LMU tipoff Sunday at 4 p.m. in the SAC title game. Pregame coverage on the Eagle Sports Network begins at 3:45 with the Appalachian Electric Cooperative Countdown to Tipoff on Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville).