VIDEO: Chuck Benson Interview
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Fourth-seeded Carson-Newman (19-10) and top-seeded and fourth-ranked Lincoln Memorial (25-4) will match wits Saturday at 5:30 from Timmons Arena in Greenville, S.C. for the right to play in the South Atlantic Conference Championship game.
Carson-Newman and Lincoln Memorial meet for the second time in the South Atlantic Conference tournament semifinals. The Eagles are trying to avoid a repeat of the 2012-13 season when Antoine Davis, then a junior who earned SAC Player of the Year honors, and company fell 69-59 to the Railsplitters in a defensive slugfest.
The Eagles are 1-2 all-time in the SAC tournament against LMU. This will be the third time in six seasons the Eagles and Railsplitters have collided in postseason play.
Carson-Newman and Lincoln Memorial split the regular season series. The Eagles won a thriller in Holt Fieldhouse in November 111-109 in overtime. Malik Abraham (Snellville, Ga.) drilled the game-winning 18-footer from the right wing with a second left to secure the win.
The Railsplitters turned around and crushed Carson-Newman in January 108-76. The win was the biggest for LMU in series history. The Railsplitters hopped out to a 33-6 lead and never looked back in that one.
"The first game we made shots, and it was a back-and-forth affair," head coach Chuck Benson said. "The second game we didn't make shots to start off and they made them in a flurry. That game was over before it even started. I don't know if there is any take away from that one. Every game is its own unique storyline between two teams that are trending in the right direction."
Carson-Newman enters the semifinals off a 96-74 win over Newberry, a game in which the Wolves knocked down 15 threes, but attempted a SAC record 57 from deep. Carson-Newman's 22-point margin of victory is the third largest win for the Eagles in a SAC quarterfinal game.
LMU makes its way to the semifinals with a 88-71 win over Tusculum at Tex Turner Arena. Lincoln Memorial trailed by as many as nine points and led by a mere six points with a little over five minutes to play, but closed on a 17-6 run to defeat the Pioneers and earn a 15th straight win.
The Eagles are 4-8 all-time in the SAC semis. Two of those wins came with Carson-Newman as the lower seed. The Eagles knocked off top-seeded Wingate 59-56 in 1999 as a four seed. C-N defeated Mars Hill 76-74 in the 1994 semis as a five seed en route to the SAC title and an autobid to the NCAA tournament.
LMU is as always, really freakin' good. The Railsplitters are led by three-time All-SAC first team selection Luquon Choice. Choice leads the SAC in total minutes played with 1,007 while ranking fourth in points per game, fourth in total field goals with 191 and 12th in assists with 80. He leads the nation with 117 three-pointers, which is 11 shy of breaking both the LMU and SAC single-season record. Choice has 1,924 career points.
Choice has averaged 20.1 points per game in his career against Carson-Newman. He has a pair of 30-point games over the Eagles, both in LMU wins. The Eagles have only kept him under 10 points once. C-N held him to two points on 1-10 shooting en route to the 2014-15 SAC tournament title.
Choice is complimented by the post presence of Chris Perry. The South Florida transfer and All-SAC first team pick Chris Perry. Perry has scored two more points than Choice on the season, averaging 18.8 for the season.
Perry logged his ninth double-double of the season with 30 points, 11 rebounds and four assists against the Pioneers in the quarters.
"They are both unbelievably physical in their own regard," Benson said. "Chris is the most physically gifted specimen I've seen in this league down on the block. Luquon Choice? 6-3, 225- pound two guard who has made more than 400 threes in his career. They are two of the most dominant players in this league ever, and they have a lot of good players around them."
The Eagles will hope that a newly resurgent defense can get the job done against the nation's fourth-best scoring offense.
Opponents are averaging 76.8 points against Carson-Newman over the last five games, but they haven't been efficient. C-N is limiting its opposition to 38.4 percent shooting from the field and 33 percent shooting from three-point range since Feb. 15.
"We played nothing but zone for five years, and didn't feel like we would have enough guys to play it effectively coming into the year," Benson said. "We've grown and progressed back into it as the year goes along. Now it's given us some versatility defensively that we've never had. We can made significant defensive adjustments if we have to."
On top of that, the Eagles have been cremating people on the glass. C-N has a 47.8-33.4 rebounding edge over the last five games.
Sawyer Williams (Owenton, Ky.) needs 11 more points to bypass Antoine Davis for 12th on the all-time scoring list and third best in the Division II era. Charles Clark (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) needs 12 more points to crack the 1,600-point threshold. He is 10th on the all-time scoring list. Abraham sits at 82 made threes for the year, he needs four more to crack the top 10 for the most threes made in a SAC season. He is second all-time in Carson-Newman history behind Ish Sanders' 99.
"We'll obviously be tested, but I like the way we've learned to deal with adversity this year," Benson said. "I think our guys are ready for the challenge. This isn't a David v. Goliath matchup in our minds. We go in with confidence and a determined, purposeful outlook on this."
Tipoff between the Eagles and Railsplitters is set for 5:30 p.m. Coverage on the Eagle Sports Network starts at 5:15 with the AEC Countdown to Tipoff on Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live. The game is also available on ESPN 3.