VIDEO: Chuck Benson Interview
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Carson-Newman (23-6) will look to score an upset over the number five team in the country and advance to a second SAC title game in four years when it challenges Queens (27-2) Saturday evening at 7:30 in the South Atlantic Conference Tournament Semifinals at Furman's Timmons Arena.
Queens swept the regular season series against the Eagles, winning on Dec. 13 in Curry Arena 92-81, before taking an 82-66 decision from the Eagles in Holt Fieldhouse on Feb. 10.
Queens is looking to join Lincoln Memorial (2016-17 and 2012-13) and Wingate (2015-16) as the only programs to beat a Chuck Benson coached team three times in one season.
"Our guys have got to be locked in and focused on our schemes," head coach Chuck Benson said. "It's being locked in and focused on the things that we've determined are important for this game. Hopefully that can be enough."
The game seems to be purely for SAC tournament pride. Both Carson-Newman, ranked fifth in the Southeast Region, and Queens, ranked second in the region, seem to be comfortably in line to make the NCAA tournament as at-large teams even if they don't win the SAC tournament title.
However, that doesn't diminish the Eagles' motivation in Benson's mind.
"Anytime you have a tournament opportunity, you want to perform the best you can," Benson said. "We're fortunate that guys on this team have gone down to Furman and won a championship. We go down there with the expectation to win a championship. It's nice to think that we've solidified an at-large bid in the Southeast Regional. But that's not the tournament we're focused on yet."
The Royals have oodles of talent.
Four Royals earned recognition on the SAC All-Conference Teams. Todd Withers was named to the first team while both Ike Agusi and Mike Davis were honored on the second team. Jalin Alexander was the fourth of the group of seniors honored, earning a spot on the honorable mention team.
"It's tough to stop them," Benson said. "We feel like we've got some kids that can play, but other coaches in this league feel like they've got double what we have. Hopefully we're playing some of our best basketball right now, and anything can happen in tournament play. We've got to put the game together on the floor and see if it's enough."
Withers, a senior forward, completed the regular season leading the Royals in points and rebounds. He averages 13.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. He, as well as Carson-Newman first-team All-SAC selection Charles Clark, both represent the league on the Bevo Francis Award Top 50 Watch List for the best small college basketball player in the country.
Charles Clark broke past the 2,300-point threshold with his 59th career 20-point effort in the SAC quarterfinals against Newberry. He has 2,318 points for his career. He is the South Atlantic Conference's second all-time leading scorer. Clark needs six more points to catch Sean Barnette of Wingate for the SAC's career scoring record, 2,324 career points, and seven to pass him.
Clark has not been held to six points in a game since Feb. 25, 2015 when Lincoln Memorial held him to five his freshman year. Clark has only been kept in single-digits twice since the start of his sophomore season, by Queens as a junior when he scored seven in 19 foul-plagued minutes, and by Mars Hill as a senior with a nine-point outing.
Part of the Royals success this season has been on the defensive side of the ball. They played Clark about as well as anyone this year, limiting the Eagles' All-American to 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting in the meeting in February in Holt Fieldhouse.
"They've got veteran kids who have done it with a scheme that's simple," Benson said. "They do a good job of turning you over and creating extra possessions. The last time we played them, we met a lot of our little in-game goals that lead to winning. The one that didn't is that they turned us over."
Carson-Newman is looking to make its first South Atlantic Conference title game as a three seed. The Eagles made it to the semifinals as a three seed in 2004 before losing to seven seed, and eventual champ Catawba 68-61.
This is Carson-Newman's first ever South Atlantic Conference tournament meeting with Queens. The Eagles have played every team in the league in the tournament now with the exception of Anderson.
The Eagles are looking for their first win as a lower seed in the semifinals for the first time since 1999 when a fourth-seeded C-N team beat top-seeded Wingate 59-56. Carson-Newman's last win as a lower seed in the tournament in general came in the 2015 SAC title game when the second-seeded Eagles took a 63-48 win from top-seed LMU for the championship.
Tipoff between the Eagles and Royals is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday night. Coverage of the game will be available on the Eagle Sports Network beginning with the AEC Countdown to Tipoff at 7:15 on Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live.