The Eagles, ranked 10th in the first NCAA Southeast Region poll, travel to Cuddy Arena for a 4 p.m. tipoff Saturday with Wingate (17-8, 14-5 SAC), who was ranked seventh. With both teams hovering in the back half of the region rankings, the contest serves as a virtual elimination game for an at-large NCAA tournament bid.
This will be Carson-Newman's first matchup against another regionally ranked foe in the regular season since closing out 2013-14 with a 92-78 win at Newberry in a 6-9 matchup.
"This is the final game of a murder's row of six out of eight games away from Holt Fieldhouse," head coach Chuck Benson said. "We're sitting in a place where we have a lot at stake. That's the kind of scenario that competitor's want. You want to be in a situation where it means something. For both programs, the game means a whole lot with a ton of ramifications."
The matchup also matters in terms of positioning for seeds in the South Atlantic Conference tournament. The Eagles sit a game back of the Bulldogs in fourth in the league standings. The Bulldogs have already sewn up a first-round home game for the tournament, while the Eagles need to win one of their final three, or Catawba to lose one of its final three to clinch a top-four seed.
Wingate is arguably the hottest team in the country outside of top-ranked and unbeaten Northwest Missouri State. The Bulldogs are 14-1 since Dec. 17. LMU has been the only team to defeat Wingate since the Bulldogs lost to Mars Hill at the buzzer, 90-88, on Dec. 3.
The Bulldogs have won four straight against the Eagles, including a 79-77 win early this season. Carson-Newman held Wingate to 38.7 percent shooting from the field and a 4-of-22 effort from three point range in the loss to the Bulldogs on Jan. 4. The field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage are both season lows for the Bulldogs.
Part of the Bulldogs recent run of success, and their win earlier this season over the Eagles, has been predicated on defense and rebounding. Wingate is top 10 in the country in both defensive rebounding and blocked shots.
Wingate's 5.2 blocked shots per game are ninth in the country and the top mark in the South Atlantic Conference. Keith Griffin is the primary rim protector. The NABC Good Works team member is 13th nationally with 2.59 rejections per game. Wingate averages 29.71 defensive rebounds per game, which is eighth in the country.
The Bulldogs outrebounded the Eagles by seven in the first meeting. At the time, it was the largest rebounding margin against the Eagles this season. Since then, Carson-Newman has been outrebounded by LMU by 13 in a loss and by Anderson by eight in a win. Wingate and Carson-Newman have two of the best four rebounding advantages in the South Atlantic Conference this season.
Carson-Newman enters the game fresh off a thrilling 75-74 win at Tusculum. It marked the fourth time in the 111-game history of the series that the final margin had been decided by a single point.
The Eagles lost 61-60 during the 1964-65 campaign, picked up a 66-65 win during the 1988-89 season, and fell 91-90 during the 2014-15 season.
Carson-Newman is 40-50 all-time in games decided by one point. The victory is C-N's first one-point win since a 65-64 triumph over Alabama-Huntsville in Nov. 2009 inside Holt Fieldhouse. JJ Wesley knocked down a jumper with seven seconds remaining to get the Eagles the win that day.
Charles Clark (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) posted his seventh career 30-point effort against Tusculum on Feb. 15. Clark's seven 30-point games are the most by a Carson-Newman player in a career since the year 2000. Clark passed Ish Sanders with the performance. The final two points came on the game-winning bucket with 1.4 seconds left.
The junior is 35 points away from becoming the program's 12th 1,500-point scorer. Clark sits at 1,465 career points and needs seven more to catch 2002 All-American Kyle Gribble for 12th on the all-time list and for third among players who suited up in the Division II era since 1992-93.
Meanwhile. Sawyer Williams (Owenton, Ky.) also eyes the 1,500-point threshold. Williams has 1,432 career points. Williams stands poised to finish his career as the second most efficient shot maker in South Atlantic Conference history.
"They are two of the best players to ever play here," Benson said. "Sawyer has defined his game with toughness and blue collar approach. Charles, in less than three seasons, has had so many incredible performances. I cherish every opportunity that I have to coach and work alongside the two of them."
The Owenton, Ky.-native has made 61.3 percent of the shots he's taken in his career. He is behind Bryan Grier of Wingate and his 61.9 percent effort. Williams has averaged 10.69 shots a game over the last two years. If Williams were to take that many shots per game on average over Carson-Newman's next four contests, he would need to make 8.4 a game to catch Grier.
With his 543 made field goals, Williams is also set to begin cracking the top 10 for the South Atlantic Conference's record book for that category. He's six away from 10th, and C-N All-American Antoine Davis.
Tipoff between the Eagles and Bulldogs is set for 4 p.m. The game will be available on ESPN3 and on the Eagle Sports Network. Coverage on the ESN starts at 3:45 with the AEC Countdown to Tipoff on Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live.