HARROGATE, Tenn. — The Railsplitters used a lockdown defensive effort to close out 2016 with a 74-60 victory over the No. 5 Bellarmine Knights on New Year’s Eve at Tex Turner Arena.
After stewing on a disappointing defeat at the hands of Newberry for two weeks, Lincoln Memorial (9-3) conjured up arguably its most impressive defensive performance of the year to hand Bellarmine (10-2) its first loss since Nov. 11, snapping a 10-game winning streak.
The Railsplitters held the Knights, who entered the contest ranked fourth in the nation in field-goal percentage at 53.6 percent, to 39.6 percent shooting, which included a dreadful 2-for-14 effort from three.
“I thought our focus was through the roof,” LMU head coach Josh Schertz said. “We’ve had issues in the first semester being connected defensively and everybody being locked in to what we need to do. Bellarmine challenges that; they’re such a great cutting and movement team.”
“Focus was really through the roof to win on a night when we shot 4-for-18 from three. You can win games when you don’t shoot well but you have to have great defense, energy and toughness and I thought besides a two-minute stretch to start the second half we played with great defense, energy and toughness.”
The Railsplitters struggled from three-point territory with a 22.2 percent clip, but finished 27-for-55 from the field for a 49.1 percent mark and also went 16-for-23 at the charity stripe. Lincoln Memorial was particularly good on offense in the second half, when the Railsplitters shot 53.6 percent and made 10 of their 14 free throws.
Luquon Choice led all players with 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting to go along with five rebounds, one assist and one steal. Bellarmine’s small-ball lineups limited Chris Perry to just 23 minutes of action, but he was effective with 14 points and six rebounds over that span.
Cornelius Taylor and Dorian Pinson had nine points apiece, while Paul Woodson and Trevon Shaw tallied eight points apiece off the bench.
Rusty Troutman made two free throws with 14:17 left in the first half to tie the game at 11-11, but the Knights wouldn’t score again until Adam Eberhard scored a put-back layup at the 9:58 mark.
The Railsplitters weren’t able to build much of a lead during that Bellarmine drought, but did pull ahead 17-11 on two free throws from Woodson at the 10:27 mark.
The Railsplitters took their largest lead of the half at 21-13 on a jumper from Perry with 7:15 left, however, the Knights scored six unanswered points to close the gap to 21-19 on two Ben Weyer free throws at the 4:29 mark.
Lincoln Memorial held on to the lead and eventually extended it to 27-22 on a Deshawn Patterson jumper, but Bellarmine used a 7-0 flurry to take a 29-27 lead with 1:20 remaining. Buckets from Choice and Taylor sent LMU into the break with a 31-29 lead.
The Railsplitters limited the Knights to a dismal 32.1 percent clip in the first half. Lincoln Memorial went just 1-for-7 from three and shot 44.4 percent as a unit over that same span.
Lincoln Memorial hit a brief lull to open the second half, as Bellarmine used an 8-3 spurt to grab a 37-34 lead on a bucket from Tyler Jenkins with 16:26 left.
The Railsplitters worked their way back and eventually took a 41-39 lead on a bucket from Taylor, but two free throws by Al Davis tied it up with just under 14 minutes to play.
That’s when the Railsplitters effectively seized control, as Bellarmine would not get another field goal until Daniel Ramser laid it in with 9:57 left, which cut LMU’s lead to 51-45. A basket from Adam Eberhard kept the deficit at six, but the Railsplitters scored eight unanswered points to take a commanding 61-47 lead with just over six minutes remaining.
A brief scoring drought allowed the Knights to pull within 10 points at 65-55 with four minutes remaining, but a 3-pointer from Choice at the 2:21 mark pushed the lead back to 72-58. The lead would swell to as many as 16 points, but a bucket by Jarek Coles cut the final deficit to 14 points.
Troutman and Eberhard led the Knights with 16 points apiece, but that duo combined to finish 10-for-25 from the field and 2-for-8 from three. Davis had 10 points, while Jenkins and Coles had six points apiece.
Following their third loss of the season against Newberry on Dec. 17, the Railsplitters fell from the top 25 of the NABC/Division II rankings for the first time since November 2010.
Lincoln Memorial’s collective confidence was a bit shaken. Schertz noted that Saturday afternoon’s win over the fifth-ranked team in the country could pay dividends from a mental standpoint.
“It gives the guys confidence that when we prepare well and we’re focused that we can with and beat anybody. It’s a one-game snapshot just like Newberry, but I thought our preparation back from Christmas was great. Our attention to detail was better and we had three of our better practices coming into today.”
“It gives us confidence. It shows that if we do the daily work we’re capable of playing with and beating anybody.”
The Railsplitters return to South Atlantic Conference play on Wednesday when they host the Mars Hill Lions at Tex Turner Arena at 8 p.m. The Lions suffered their fifth straight loss on Saturday with a 76-71 defeat against Carson-Newman, falling to 3-9 overall in the process.