GREENEVILLE, Tenn. --- Tusculum senior Dillon Smith missed his first 11 shots of the night, but made the 12th one matter as he buried a deep three-pointer with 10.9 seconds left as the Pioneers rallied from a 14-point deficit to edge visiting Young Harris 74-73 in TU's home opener.
Tusculum is off to its first 3-0 start in 13 seasons while the Mountain Lions fall to 0-3 in the first recorded meeting between the two schools. The two teams will meet again New Year's Eve at Young Harris.
Trenton Gibson led the Pioneers with a career-high 24 points to go along with seven rebounds and six assists, while junior Brandon Mitchell tallied his second double-double in a row with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Senior Tariq Jenkins added 11 points while battling foul trouble for most of the evening and graduate student Caleb Hodnett finished with 11 markers and seven boards in the victory.
Ryle Owens led the Mountain Lions with 17 points off the bench while Seth McCoy canned four 3-pointers for his 12 points as 10 different YHC players found their way into the scoring column.
Young Harris shot lights out from three-point territory, making their first four long range attempts and finished the night 14-of-26 from beyond the arc (53.8%). But the Mountain Lions would go cold in the final 6:20 of the game and miss its final seven field goal attempts.
The Mountain Lions led for nearly 37 of the 40 minutes played and held a 55-44 lead with 13:50 remaining in the contest.
TU responded with a 7-0 run including a three-pointer and two free throws from Gibson and a slam dunk by Mitchell after one of his game-high nine offensive rebounds as the Pioneers trimmed the deficit to 55-51 with 11:11 left.
McCoy connected on his fourth trey of the night to push the lead back to seven (58-51). The Pioneers cut the YHC lead to two at 61-59 following a Gibson three-pointer with 7:39 left. But the Mountain Lions logged a 7-2 spurt to push the lead back to seven again at 68-61 after two free throws by Owens with 5:49 left.
Jenkins made three of his next four free throws but Owens also made a pair with five minutes left as YHC led 69-64.
The Pioneers answered with six straight points over the next 2:34 as Gibson made two free throws and Mitchell added two more himself and tied the game 70-70 with another slam dunk with 2:26 on the scoreboard.
YHC missed two field goal attempts on its next possession, but Hodnett would come away with the rebound. Tusculum also missed a pair shots in the paint, but Hodnett would be fouled attempting a three-pointer with 1:20 left on the clock. Hodnett made the first free throw to give Tusculum its second lead of the game and first since going up 2-0 to start the game. He missed his final two shots and Jacorie Archie was fouled on the rebound. Archie made his two attempts to give the Mountain Lions the lead again at 72-71.
Young Harris forced a turnover on TU's next possession, but missed a layup with 33 seconds left as Mitchell came up with the rebound as Tusculum called a timeout.
The Pioneers would not get a shot off as Alphonso Willis stole the ball and Brian Harper would be fouled with 18.9 seconds left. Harper made the first shot, but missed the second as TU had the ball trailing 73-71.
Gibson dribbled into the front court and found Smith on the right wing as he put up the three-pointer from 26-feet out as it went through sending the Pioneer Arena crowd into a frenzy.
The Mountain Lions got a shot to win it, but Willis' contested jumper hit off the rim as the Pioneers survived.
The 14-point deficit is tied for the fourth largest comeback in recorded school history and the fifth double-digit comeback in the last two years.
Young Harris shot 64 percent in the first half including 10-of-13 from three as the Mountain Lions led by as many as 23-9 before taking a 45-34 advantage into the locker room. They would finish the game shooting below 50 percent from the floor, including 7-of-24 in the second half alone (29.2%).
Tusculum finished the game shooting 32.9 percent from the floor, but went 21-of-28 at the line (75%) and out-rebounded YHC 44-37 including 28-10 on the offensive boards. TU forced 28 turnovers resulting in 29 points for the Pioneers.
The Pioneers 3-0 start is its first since the 2006-07 campaign. TU returns to action this Saturday and Sunday for a pair of regional games in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Pioneers will face their fourth straight Peach Belt Conference foe in UNC Pembroke on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Levine Center on the Queens University of Charlotte campus. TU will play Lees-McRae on Sunday at 4 p.m. in Charlotte.