HARROGATE, Tenn. — The top-seeded and 11th-ranked Railsplitters (24-4) take the first step in trying to defend its South Atlantic Conference tournament title on Wednesday night when they host the eighth-seeded Tusculum Pioneers (12-16) at 8 p.m. inside of Tex Turner Arena in the quarterfinals of the 2017 SAC Championship.
The winner of Wednesday’s clash will advance to the SAC Championship semifinals to face either Carson-Newman or Newberry on Saturday at Timmons Arena in Greenville, South Carolina.
Lincoln Memorial will be looking to win the SAC tournament for the third time in the past four seasons and the fourth time overall. The Railsplitters rolled through Tusculum, Newberry and Wingate to win the 2016 SAC Championship, and also won the league tournament in 2014 and 2011.
In addition to that, the Railsplitters are aiming to reach the 25-win mark for the seventh straight season. To put that into perspective, the LMU men’s basketball program had just four total 25-win seasons in its history prior to head coach Josh Schertz’s arrival.
The Railsplitters clinched their fifth consecutive SAC regular-season championship and extended their winning streak to 14 games on Saturday with a 92-81 win at Catawba. Lincoln Memorial trailed 27-16 with less than 10 minutes left in the first half, but used a 28-4 run to alter the course of the game. The Railsplitters never led by less than six points in the second half and extended their lead to as many as 16.
In the final regular-season game of his career, senior Luquon Choice scored a game-high 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting and a 4-of-9 mark from 3-point range. Choice enters the postseason needing just one point to reach 1,900 for his career and one 3-pointer to hit 400. He would be just the fourth player in program history – the first of the NCAA era – and the sixth player in SAC history to reach 1,900 career points.
For the fourth time in the past six seasons, the Railsplitters will face the Pioneers in the opening round of the SAC Championship. It will mark the fifth time in total that Lincoln Memorial and Tusculum have squared off in the league tournament, as the two teams also met in the semifinals of the 2011 SAC Championship. The Railsplitters are a perfect 5-0 all-time against Tusculum in the SAC tournament.
Tusculum backed its way into this year’s SAC Championship field, as the Pioneers lost four of their last six games to end the regular season. Tusculum suffered an 80-54 loss to the Queens Royals on the final day of the regular season and would have missed out on the tournament if not for Lenoir-Rhyne’s head-scratching loss to Mars Hill, who finished the season with a 6-22 overall record.
The Pioneers can be dangerous if they get hot from 3-point range, though. Tusculum is scoring 81.3 points per game and ranked third in the SAC in 3-pointers made per game with right at 10. Last Wednesday, the Pioneers buried a SAC-record 22 threes on 32 attempts in a 113-78 whitewashing of Mars Hill. Tusculum also hit 15 3-pointers on four different occasions, most recently doing it against Coker on Feb. 11.
Tusculum struggles on the defensive end of the floor, allowing 83 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting and a 37.6 percent mark from 3-point range.
Guards Kendall Patterson, Ronnie Baylark, Cory Fagan and Zach Davis make up the bulk of the Pioneers’ offensive production. Patterson leads the team with 15.9 points and 5.1 assists per game on 46 percent shooting, while Baylark has pitched in 13.4 points and 2.6 assists per night on a 43.5 percent clip from three. Fagan is adding 13 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, and Davis is contributing 8.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per appearance.
Tusculum also had a formidable post threat in 6-10 senior Chase Mounce. Though his numbers aren’t quite what they were last season (13.3 points per game), Mounce is still piling up 9.0 points and 6.0 rebounds per game on 51.3 percent shooting.
The Pioneers will be looking to snap a 20-game losing streak against the Railsplitters, who haven’t lost to Tusculum since Feb. 4, 2009. Lincoln Memorial swept the regular-season series from the Pioneers with relative ease, winning 87-67 at Tex Turner Arena on Feb. 8 and 90-68 in Greeneville on Jan. 18.
In the win in Harrogate, the Railsplitters built a 13-point lead at the break and extended their cushion to as many as 27 points in the second half to make it 20 straight wins over Tusculum. Chris Perry had 23 points on 10-for-14 shooting with 10 rebounds and two steals, while Trevon Shaw had 15 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals. Patterson led the Pioneers with 18 points, while Mounce had 12 points and a team-high eight rebounds.
This season’s win at Tusculum was similar, as the Railsplitters raced out to a 22-point halftime lead and waltzed to the finish line. Six players finished in double figures for Lincoln Memorial, led by Cornelius Taylor’s 18 points. Hunter Spaw had 17 points and three steals in 18 minutes off the bench. Fagan led the Pioneers with a game-high 20 points.
Tickets are $8 for adults, $4 for children 12 and under, active and retired military, and seniors (60+), and $2 for college students with a valid ID. Children ages five and under will be admitted free of charge as will the first 200 LMU students who present a current student ID at the box office.
Tip-off is set for 8 p.m. on Wednesday night inside of Tex Turner Arena. Live stats, video and audio links are available at www.LMURailsplitters.com.