HICKORY, N.C. --- Tusculum University's Trenton Gibson scored a career-high 26 points while Brandon Mitchell posted his team-leading sixth double-double in the Pioneers' 77-70 road win at Lenoir-Rhyne University Wednesday night at Shuford Memorial Gymnasium.
Tusculum (12-9, 7-6 SAC) completes the season-sweep over the Bears (11-7, 7-6 SAC) while snapping L-R's four-game winning streak. TU also snaps a four-year drought in Hickory, while posting the first season-sweep over Lenoir-Rhyne since the 2009-2010 campaign.
With the win, Tusculum moves into four-way tie for fourth place along with L-R, Newberry College and Anderson University.
Gibson's 26-point effort surpasses the 24 markers he tallied in TU's home opener with Young Harris College in November. On Wednesday, he scored 13 points in each half going 9-of-18 from the floor and 7-of-8 from the free throw line.
Tusculum used a 20-5 run in the final 8:25 of the first half to take a 37-25 lead at the intermission. TU maintained its double-digit lead for most of the second half, but had to hold off a furious L-R rally down the stretch as the Pioneers making its final 16 free throws including nine in a row in the final 1:32 to claim its first win at Shuford since Feb. 15, 2015.
Mitchell tied a season-high with his 19 points, while grabbing 10 rebounds and posted four blocked shots to add to his SAC-leading total of 48 rejections this year, which are the third-most in TU history. Caleb Hodnett added six points and a season-best 12 rebounds. Dillon Smith added nine points and a career-best six rebounds, while freshman Keaston Brown posted eight points and two steals in his first career start.
Lenoir-Rhyne's R.J. Gunn went 9-of-11 from the floor and 7-of-7 at the foul line for his 26 points. Cooper Fowler added 17 points, while Darius Simmons finished with 14 markers and a game-high eight assists in the loss.
It was a close contest early as neither team led by more than three points in the opening 12 minutes. Fowler broke a tie with his three-pointer as L-R led 20-17 with 9:53 left in the half.
Hodnett recorded a dunk and Mitchell made one of two free throws to tie the game at 20-20. The two teams traded buckets as the score was tied for a sixth time in the game at 22-22 with 5:49 on the clock.
Tusculum scored 11 unanswered sparked by a triple from redshirt freshman Zack Dixon, followed by a Smith jumper, and a slam dunk by Mitchell. Gibson followed with back-to-back baskets as the Pioneers led 33-22 with 2:42 to go in the period.
Simmons stopped the TU run with his jumper, but Mitchell made two free throws and put home his second dunk of the half as the Pioneers took a 37-25 lead into the locker room.
The Bears opened the second period with a 7-2 spurt and cut the deficit to 39-32 on Simmons' three-pointer at the 17:44 mark. But Brown answered with a triple of his own to halt the L-R advance.
Lenoir-Rhyne trimmed the TU lead to eight on two occasions over the next five minutes before Smith gave the Pioneers their largest lead of the game at 54-41 with 10:51 in the contest.
With Tusculum ahead 62-51 with 6:30 left, Gunn scored on consecutive baskets to cut the deficit to 62-55. But the Pioneers answered with a pair of layups of their own from Brown and Hodnett for a 65-55 TU lead with 3:50 on the scoreboard.
The Bears responded with 10 straight points capped off by a Mason Hawks' long-range trey as L-R trailed by one at 66-65 with 2:27 left. The Pioneers were whistled for an offensive foul on their next possession and L-R had a chance to take the lead by Gunn's jumper with under two minutes left was off target and Gibson came down with the rebound.
Smith was fouled and he made his two free throws with 1:32 to go. Gunn was fouled on L-R's possession and he made it a one-point game again (68-67) with his two free throws with 1:15 remaining.
Ten seconds later, Brown's layup try was good on a defensive goal-tend by the Bears and was fouled on the play. Brown completed the three-point play with his free throw as TU led 71-67 with 1:04 remaining.
Lenoir-Rhyne would come up empty on its next two trips down the floor and Smith and Gibson each made two free throws as the Pioneers led 75-67 with 27 seconds remaining.
Fowler kept things interesting with his three-pointer to trim the deficit to 75-70, but Gibson would make two more free throws to seal the win for Tusculum.
The Pioneers finished the game going 19-of-21 at the free throw line for 91 percent. Tusculum shot 47 percent on the night while Lenoir-Rhyne went 43 percent. TU out-rebounded the Bears 39-28 and converted its 18 offensive rebounds into 18 second-chance points.
Tusculum returns home on Saturday to face Newberry in a battle of fourth-place teams. The Pioneers won a nail-biter 65-61 in this year's first meeting in South Carolina.
Saturday's SAC doubleheader with Newberry is Military and First Responder's Day at Pioneer Arena. All U.S. armed forces and veteran, along with police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians will be admitted free. The women's game begins at 2 p.m. followed by the men's game at 4 p.m.