GREENEVILLE, Tenn. --- For the first time in nine seasons the Tusculum University men's basketball team has advanced to the semifinal round of the Pilot/Flying J South Atlantic Conference Championship.
The Pioneers (19-12) are the No. 4 seed and will face top-seed and No. 2 nationally-ranked Lincoln Memorial University this Saturday at 5 p.m. from Timmons Arena in Greenville, South Carolina. The winner of Saturday's semifinal will face either Queens University of Charlotte or Catawba College in Sunday's championship game at 4 p.m. The winner of the tournament earns the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Division II Tournament, which begins next weekend with regional play at campus sites.
Tusculum won Wednesday's SAC quarterfinal contest against No. 5 Anderson, 86-65 at Pioneer Arena. LMU (30-1) recorded its 30th consecutive victory with a 101-65 victory over No. 8 Mars Hill.
Tusculum and LMU meet for a third time this season and will be the sixth time the Pioneers and Railsplitters have squared off in the SAC Tournament. LMU has won the previous five meetings against Tusculum in the SAC postseason, including 2011 when they last met in the semifinal round.
The Pioneers are 10-16 all-time in the SAC Tournament including 2-2 in the championship semifinal. Tusculum won its only SAC Tournament crown in 2005 as they defeated Lenoir-Rhyne, 79-73 in Hickory, North Carolina at the Catawba Valley Community College.
Lincoln Memorial is in quest of its fifth SAC Tournament crown winning the title in 2011, 2014, 2016 and 2018. Since joining the conference in 2006, the Railsplitters have gone 21-9 in the SAC postseason including 7-2 in the semifinal round and have won six in a row when reaching the SAC Final Four.
Saturday will be the 181st recorded meeting between Tusculum and Lincoln Memorial in the longest running rivalry in Pioneer history. LMU leads the all-time series 136-44 and have won 26 of the last 27 meetings. In those 27 games, LMU has been nationally ranked in 23 of them. TU snapped a 24-game losing streak to the Railsplitters on Feb. 27, 2019, a 78-76 victory in Greeneville.
TUSCULUM SCOUTING REPORT
Tusculum head coach JT Burton has turned the Pioneer program around which suffered through eight consecutive losing seasons prior to his arrival and responded with back-to-back winning campaigns for the first time since the 2008-09 (20-11) and 2009-10 (16-12) seasons. TU went 16-13 last year and have improved by three wins this year and posted its second top-tier finish in the conference in as many seasons.
Defense and rebounding have been what the Pioneers have hung their hard hats. Tusculum leads the conference in turnovers forced (15.10 tpg), steals (8.8 spg), rebounds per game (40.87 rpg), fewest rebounds allowed per game (31.5 rpg), rebound margin (+9.5) and offensive rebounds per game (16.19 rpg – 1st in NCAA II). TU is also second in the league in scoring defense (70.3 ppg) and blocked shots per game (3.8 bpg).
Leading the charge for the Pioneers is guard Trenton Gibson (Murfreesboro, Tenn.), who earned a spot on the All-South Atlantic Conference team. Gibson, last season's SAC Freshman of the Year, has followed his solid rookie campaign with an outstanding sophomore year where he leads the team in scoring (13.7 ppg), assists (4.0 apg – 6th in SAC) and free throw percentage (.810 – 13th in SAC). He is also third on the team in rebounding (6.0 rpg – 15th in SAC) and recorded the second triple-double in program history in this year's season-opener against USC Aiken. In Wednesday's win over Anderson, Gibson led the way with his 19-point performance and in his two career SAC postseason contest, he is averaging 22.5 points per contest.
Senior guard Tariq Jenkins (Riverdale, Ga.) is second on the team in offensive production, averaging 12.8 points per contest. Jenkins leads the team with his 47 steals and is averaging 1.6 thefts per game which are fifth in the conference.
Senior guard Dillon Smith (Lexington, Tenn.) is third on the TU roster with his 11.5 points per game average as he is the team's top three-point shooter with 56 made treys and has connected on a trey in 15 consecutive contests. Smith has scored in double figures in his last 10 games, averaging 16.6 points per outing during that span. In those games, he has scored a career-best 22 points on three occasions including in Saturday's road loss at Wingate in the regular-season finale.
Junior forward Brandon Mitchell (Virginia Beach, Va.) has been one of most improved players on the team this year where he is averaging 9.5 points per contest and leads the team in rebounding averaging 7.9 boards per contest, which is third in the league. His 3.74 offensive rebounds per game average is tops in the SAC and ranked 10th in the country. He leads the team with eight double-doubles and his 58 blocked shots are a new TU single-season record. Mitchell finished the year averaging 1.87 blocks per game which are second in the conference and 25th in the country.
Caleb Hodnett, a graduate student from Adolphus, Kentucky, is the seasoned veteran of the roster where he has played for three different head coaches in his 111-game career in Greeneville. Hodnett is averaging 8.9 points per game in his final TU season and is second on the team in rebounding tallying 6.2 boards per contest (13th in SAC). In his career, he has totaled 857 points including 109 made three-point field goals. His 586 career rebounds are 10th-most by a Pioneer.
Senior center Cameron King (London, England) is accounting for 2.7 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. His 17 blocks are second on the roster and his 50 blocked shots over the past two years are already seventh-most in the TU record book. King is also one of the most improved free throw shooters in the country. In his first TU campaign, he shot just 25.6 percent (11-of-43) from the foul line, but has gone 23-of-30 this year for 76.7 percent.
Coach Burton's club also includes some talented rookies who have shined in their freshmen campaigns. Joshua Scott (Pompano Beach, Fla.) leads the TU freshmen averaging 5.6 points and 2.9 rebounds per game. Scott, who was named to this year's SAC All-Freshman Team, has played in 28 games including eight starts. He started in Wednesday's SAC quarterfinal where he scored five points and pulled down a season-high 10 rebounds.
Justin Mitchell (Lexington, Ky.) has also been a force for TU, posting 4.2 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. Mitchell has played in 25 games with seven starts.
Freshman point guard Keaston Brown (Lexington, Ky.) worked his way into the starting line-up down the stretch with seven straight times in the starting-five as TU went 6-1 during that span. He is averaging 2.2 points, 1.1 rebounds and 0.9 assists per contest.
Rookie DyQuavis Wilkins (Greenville, N.C.) is the only freshman to have played in all 31 games this year. His best game came in the last meeting with Lincoln Memorial last week as he posted 12 points against the Railsplitters.
Redshirt freshman guard Zack Dixon (Charlotte, N.C.) has seen action in 21 games in a reserve role as he poured in a career-best 17 points in Wednesday's SAC quarterfinal as he shot 6-of-9 from the floor including 3-of-3 from three-point territory and a perfect 2-of-2 at the free throw line.
SCOUTING THE RAILSPLITTERS
Lincoln Memorial is the hottest team in college basketball riding a 30-game winning streak and own a No. 2 national ranking. The Railsplitters are also the top-ranked team in the NCAA II Southeast Region and are in line to host next week's regional.
LMU swept all of the major conference awards on Thursday with sophomore guard Courvoisier McCauley being named SAC Player of the Year, sophomore guard Cameron Henry being tabbed SAC Defensive Player of the Year and skipper Josh Schertz garnering SAC Coach of the Year honors. Also earning All-SAC first team honors with McCauley is junior guard Devin Whitfield, while senior guard Anthony Brown and Henry were named to the All-SAC second team.
McCauley is averaging 20.1 points (2nd in SAC), 6.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 44.7 percent from three-point land. Second in the 12-team SAC in scoring. McCauley ranks 12th nationally with 98 made threes this season and is the 23rd-most efficient three-point shooter in the land. The Indianapolis, Indiana native is averaging 3.2 trifectas per game, which is 35th in the nation, and has connected on four or more treys on 12 different occasions. McCauley has notched 20 points or more 16 times and hit the 30-point mark in three outings. He is responsible for five double-doubles and scored a career-high 44 points on Dec. 15, 2019 in a 97-77 home win over Lenoir-Rhyne. He is a Bevo Francis Award Top 50 watch list member for the nation's top player within Small College Basketball.
Henry leads LMU in rebounding with 8.0 boards per game while also averaging 13.9 points and 3.7 assists per contest. His 2.1 steals per game leads the conference and are 31st nationally.
Schertz has guided the Railsplitters to an unblemished conference record for the third time in five years as LMU went a perfect 22-0 in league play to win the program its eighth SAC regular-season title.
Admission to Saturday's SAC Semifinals (4 games) is $15 for adults, $8 for youth ages 6-12 and for seniors age 65 and older, and $8 for active and retired members of the military. College students with valid ID will be admitted for $8.
Admission to Sunday's SAC Championship finals (2 games) is $12 for adults and $6 for youth ages 6-12, seniors age 65 and older, active and retired members of the military and college students with valid ID.
No complimentary tickets or pass lists will be available for either day of the tournament, although SAC passes will be honored.
FOLLOW THE GAMES
Live video and statistics of the Pilot/Flying J SAC Basketball Championship will be provided by the league office. Links for available at www.TheSAC.com and www.TusculumPioneers.com. The "Voice of the Pioneers" Brian Stayton will describe all the action on the Pioneer Sports Network locally on 95.5 FM and 1450 AM (WSMG). Audio links are also available at www.TusculumPioneers.com.