GREENVILLE, S.C. – Seventh-ranked Carson-Newman became the first team in South Atlantic Conference history to win 29 games in a season as the Lady Eagles secured their second league crown in eight days by beating No. 21 Wingate 79-70 Sunday afternoon in the conference tournament championship game at Timmons Arena.
Three teams in league history had won 28 games as C-N, the 2017-18 regular season titlist, stands alone on top with its 29 wins, its second-most wins in a year as a program winning its second tournament title and first since 2005.
"There have been a lot of great teams that have come through the SAC," Carson-Newman coach Mike Mincey said. "To hold that record, that's great. I've been in the league for 10 years and I have seen a lot of great ones myself. This group started in May. They didn't go home for the summer. It was all voluntary. It's a storybook ending to put the exclamation point on this one."
Mika Wester (Newport, Tenn.) earned the tournament's Most Valuable Player honor scoring a game-high 27 points on 10-for-14 shooting in the final over 34 minutes of action. The junior added seven rebounds.
"We did a lot of visualizing," Wester said of the team's preparation. "Seeing the ball go through mentally before we even got onto the floor. I think that really helped me to focus on hitting shots – not being a shooter but being a maker."
She was joined on the All-Tournament team by Haris Price (Gatlinburg, Tenn.) and Jecca Simerly (Talbott, Tenn.). Price scored 20 of her 24 points in the second half as she went 7-for-15 from the field and 7-for-9 from the charity stripe with three boards and three steals. After a double-double yesterday, Simerly tallied eight points and four rebounds in 28 minutes.
Both of the tournament titles for Carson-Newman (29-2) have come against Wingate (25-5) as the Lady Eagles also won the battle in 2005. C-N holds a 7-5 edge in the all-time meetings in conference tournament action.
Sunday marks the 12th time in the history of the SAC that the regular season champ also wins the tournament title and ends a string of four straight losses for the No. 1 seed in the title. In one versus two matchups, the top club is now 6-4 in the final round.
Wingate sees its run of two straight titles come to end becoming the fifth team to fall short in an attempt to win a third in-a-row. The Bulldogs lose in the league's postseason for the first time since March 4, 2015 snapping a string of eight straight victories.
The Bulldogs were rolling early surging to an 11-2 lead before Mincey called for time four-and-a-half minutes into the contest. Marta Miscenko picked up her second foul one minute later with her team ahead 13-4. The teams traded baskets before a 7-0 scoring spurt pulled C-N within two at 15-13. Wingate took a 19-16 advantage into the second stanza.
C-N captured its first lead of the day on a driving layup down the right side of the lane by Katie Stubblefield (Alcoa, Tenn.) to put the Lady Eagles on top 23-21 with 7:06 to play before the break. Following a foul shot from Danasia Witherspoon, Mincey's crew scored seven points on one possession in 16 seconds of game action.
Tori Griffin (Strawberry Plains, Tenn.) hit a jumper. When the ball went through the cup, Wingate coach Ann Hancock was whistled for a technical foul. Wester made one out of two foul shots. Briana Smith (Nashville, Tenn.) drew a foul and went 1-for-2 at the stripe as Stubblefield grabbed the offensive board and tossed it to Wester who buried a triple to make it a 30-22 contest.
The Bulldogs went 3-for-17 from the floor in the second as Wester hit a deep jumper from the right point to end the half and put the top seed ahead 34-28 at the break.
"We knew it was going to be very tough against Wingate," Mincey reflected. "Coach Ann Hancock does a great job and they have a great post game. We are not as big as they are. It's challenging to try to game plan. They got in foul trouble in the first half but we only carried a six-point lead into the half."
Taylor Helms banked in a three-pointer from the left wing to cut the deficit to two at 45-43 with 4:27 to go in the third. C-N would make its final six shots from the floor to push the margin to 10 at 59-49 going to the final frame.
Two Jasmine Stephen's layups in the first 45 ticks of the final quarter made it a six-point game. Wester and Price combined to score eight of the next 10 points in the contest to push the bulge to 12 with 8:09 to play.
Back-to-back shots for Miscenko cut Wingate's deficit to eight points with 7:04 to play. C-N had the answer again with a 9-2 scoring spurt to create the game's highest differential of 15 points at 76-61 with 4:07 to play.
The two sides failed to score over the next three minutes of play as Price put the game away with three of four at the free-throw line. As the buzzer sounded C-N celebrated in front of its bench to clinch a trophy.
"Yesterday my fouls came from frustration," Price said. "Today they weren't silly fouls. In the fourth quarter, I've made some shots but it needs to be throughout the entire game and that's what I need to work on from now on."
Wingate was led in scoring by 20 points from Averette who was limited to 22 minutes of action due to four fouls. Miscenko finished with 17 points. The duo combined to go 16-for-23 from the field while their teammates went 12-for-43 in the contest. Both players joined C-N's trio on the All-Tournament team.
The two teams combined for 43 turnovers on the day as C-N turned 22 giveaways from the Bulldogs in 22 points at the other end of the floor.
With the triumph, Carson-Newman seals the automatic bid and the top seed in the Southeast Region Tournament set to begin on Friday, March 9. The official selection show is tabbed for Sunday evening at 10 p.m. on NCAA.com. Full details can be found on cneagles.com and on social media by following @CNathletics on Twitter.
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