VIDEO: Chuck Benson Interview
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Carson-Newman (21-5, 13-5 South Atlantic Conference) makes the drive up US-25E to Harrogate, Tenn. with a mighty challenge awaiting at the end of the one-hour, 10-minute drive – a matchup with the number one team in the country.
Top-ranked Lincoln Memorial (25-1, 18-0 SAC) awaits the Eagles with an 8 p.m. tipoff Wednesday night.
"It will take our absolute greatest possible performance to win. Period," head coach Chuck Benson said. "They have elite players, an elite coach, and elite offense, and an elite defense. They expect to win every game. You add all that together and you have a recipe for a lot winning."
The Railsplitters lone loss of the season came at the hands of then No. 1 Northwest Missouri State 70-56 back on Dec. 19, 2017. Since then the Railsplitters have been on fire.
They've won 14 straight games since, all by double figures except for an ugly 73-72 win over Queens.
Not only have the 'Splitters won 13 of those games by double-figures, they've positively been hammering people. Removing the one-point win from Queens from the equation, LMU has beaten every other foe on the streak by an average of 30 points. In fact, Coker (85-70), Newberry (117-95) and Lenoir-Rhyne (72-55) have been the only teams to keep within 20 of LMU.
Aside from the 13-game overall win streak, LMU rides a pair of other stupefying streaks.
The Railsplitters have won a league-record 32 consecutive South Atlantic Conference games. They've won 20 consecutive home games, the 'Splitters 20-game win streak at home s the seventh longest in the country behind a 21-game win streak from Valdosta State. Queens is the last SAC team to beat LMU, doing so 103-101 in overtime in the Levine Center on Jan. 9, 2017. Newberry was the last team to win in Harrogate, collecting a 107-102 triumph on Dec. 17, 2016.
Lincoln Memorial is led by a trio of players who have been named to the final 50 watch list for the Bevo Francis Award. Together with the Eagles' Charles Clark (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) there will be four players still up for the small college basketball player of the year on the floor Wednesday.
The Railsplitters are represented by Trevon Shaw, Emmanuel Terry and Dorian Pinson.
Shaw is the country's best three-point shooter. He has knocked down a nation's best 118 threes. He'll be trying to chase down former LMU All-American Luquon Choice's school and SAC record 140 made threes in a single season. Not only has Shaw filled it up from beyond the arc, he's done it at a 49 percent clip, the third best in the country.
"He makes a lot of threes and does so at an incredibly efficient rate," Benson said. "Everyone's scout is essentially the same, you have to limit his threes. But that's hard. He has a quick release with NBA plus range. He can shoot off the catch and dribble, and he's unique in that he can pick up off the dribble with either hand. He picked up right where Luquon Choice left off and has done an outstanding job this year."
Pinson logged the first triple-double in LMU program history a year ago against the Eagles and has flirted with several since. Pinson is the league's second leading rebounder behind teammate Emmanuel Terry.
"He has good size and is truly a point forward," Benson said. "He can get a defensive rebound, go coast-to-coast and score it or pass it. He's taken his game a step further this year and added a three-point shot. He's an incredible competitor and is an elite player. I keep on using that word because it's applicable at so many levels."
Terry only is second in the country in field goal percentage making 73 percent of his shots. He and Shaw both average 18 points per game. Combine in Pinson's 14 a game and Cornelius Taylor's 14 a game and Lincoln Memorial has the highest scoring quartet of any team in the Southeast Region.
That quartet has guided LMU to prominence in the national rankings statistically. Things that Lincoln Memorial ranks top five in the country in: defensive rebounds per game (1st, 33.64), field goal percentage (1st, 55.5 percent), defensive field goal percentage (1st, 36.5 percent), scoring margin (1st, 29.4), scoring offense (2nd, 97.6), assists (2nd, 20.9), assist to turnover ratio (3rd, 1.76), three-point field goal percentage (3rd, 43.3 percent), threes per game (4th, 12.2), rebounds per game (4th, 43.32), rebound margin (4th, 10.7).
The Railsplitters can clinch at least a share of a sixth consecutive South Atlantic Conference Championship with a win. A loss to the Eagles would mean that Saturday's contest with Queens in Harrogate would be for the league title outright. A win, and Queens would have to beat the 'Splitters to earn a share.
Bizarrely enough, the game doesn't have many implications for Carson-Newman. The Eagles have already sewn up the three seed in the league tournament.
"Obviously we like where we are in conference and we want to position ourselves well for the NCAA tournament," Benson said. "A win helps you and bolster your position in the region, a loss doesn't necessarily impact you that much either. It's a pretty good spot where we're sitting. There's a lot history in this matchup."
This will be Carson-Newman's 16th all-time meeting with a top-ranked team and their third since becoming members of Division II.
The Eagles are 3-12 all-time against top-ranked teams. The Eagles lost to No. 1 Grambling in the NAIA playoffs 74-70 in 1963. During the 1966-67 season, C-N did battle with top-ranked Kentucky Wesleyan twice, losing 90-57 before eking out a 54-53 win in the second meeting.
The 1971-72 season saw C-N face off with number ones on five occasions. The Eagles lost three times to Kentucky State and twice to Tennessee State. C-N collected its only other win over a top-ranked team during the 1973-74 season. The Eagles throttled Kentucky Wesleyan that year 110-81 to knock the Panthers out of the top spot. C-N would lose three times to Kentucky State during the 1974- 75 season.
It would be the last No. 1 Carson-Newman would face before 1984 when the Eagles lost to Charles Oakley's Virginia Union team 85-72. LMU occupied the top spot during the 2011-12 season when C-N swept the season series with the Railsplitters - however, Carson-Newman did not face LMU when the Railsplitters were the country's top-ranked team. Anderson ended the Railsplitters' then 14-game win streak. Carson-Newman would beat LMU 64-61 in Harrogate four games later.
Feb. 21's matchup with top-ranked LMU marks the Eagles third matchup against a number one team as a Division II institution. Carson-Newman lost to Montevallo 93-53 during the 2004 season in a tournament at Kennesaw State and beat top-ranked Lincoln Memorial in Harrogate in 2015.
Charles Clark broke past the 2,200-point threshold with his 14th career 30-point effort and the fifth of his senior year against Tusculum He has 2,248 points for his career. He is the South Atlantic Conference's second all-time leading scorer.
Clark needs 76 more points to catch Sean Barnette of Wingate for the SAC's career scoring record. At Clark's current scoring average this season (21.6 points per game), the senior is on pace to attain the marker three to four games from now. That would require a run to the SAC semifinals or a trip into the NCAA tournament if Carson-Newman lost its SAC quarterfinal game. •Lincoln Memorial is riding a number of just ignorant streaks.
LMU has won three straight against the Eagles in dominant fashion. The Railsplitters average margin of victory against the Eagles has been 38 points. That includes a 108-69 win over the Eagles earlier this season in Holt Fieldhouse, the largest margin of defeat Carson-Newman has suffered at home in school history, and a 105-62 win last year over C-N in the SAC semifinals, the second largest margin of defeat for C-N in school history.
Tipoff between the Eagles and Railsplitters is set for 8 p.m. Wednesday. The game will be televised locally on MyVLT. The Eagle Sports Network will provide radio coverage beginning with the AEC Countdown to Tipoff on Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live.