AIKEN, S.C. — The sixth-ranked Railsplitters are making the 300-mile trek to Aiken for the program’s fourth straight NCAA Southeast Regional appearance, where an opponent located just 60 miles from Harrogate awaits. No. 2 seed Lincoln Memorial meets No.7 Carson-Newman today in the quarterfinals.
It will be the 196th meeting in the LMU/Carson-Newman rivalry that spans nearly 100 years, and the two teams have been neck and neck since the initial bout. The Eagles hold a slight 98-97 edge in the all-time series, but the Railsplitters are 2-1 in three postseason match-ups. Carson-Newman defeated LMU 86-72 in the 1984 NAIA District Tournament, but the Railsplitters eliminated the Eagles from that same event in both 1985 and 1986. The Railsplitters are 9-4 in the 13 head-to-head contests against the Eagles since 2009.
The Railsplitters (27-2) — the South Atlantic Conference regular season and tournament champions — are carrying a 10-game winning streak, but their last lost came at the hands of the Eagles. Carson-Newman snapped LMU’s then 13-game winning streak in Jefferson City on Feb. 5 with a 79-77 win at Holt Fieldhouse. The Railsplitters returned the favor just three weeks later, snapping C-N’s seven-game flurry with a 77-60 win in Tex Turner Arena.
“I expect a very similar match-up to our first two games,” said LMU head coach Josh Schertz. “As you get to this stage of the season it’s important to stay true to your identity and what got you here. The only thing that will affect winning and losing on Saturday is how the teams perform between the lines. What happened the previous two games against them or our win-loss records this season are in the past and will have no bearing on what happens Saturday afternoon.”
Lincoln Memorial will be led into the NCAA Tournament by South Atlantic Conference and Daktronics Southeast Region Player of the Year Vincent Bailey, who is one of only four players in Division II to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game this season. Bailey is collecting 21.6 points and 10.1 boards per, but the Eagles’ lane-clogging 2-3 zone frustrated the big man in the two regular-season meetings. Bailey was an uncharacteristic 8-for-21 combined in two games, scoring 16 in Jefferson City before finishing with a season-low 10 points in Tex Turner.
“There is no question that bigs are easier to take out of the game than guards, and Carson-Newman designs their game plan to limit Vinny’s touches,” Schertz said. “Basically on the perimeter they guard us by not guarding us, and the best zone offense is one where you make shots. We will need to make some shots to stretch the floor and move Vinny around to try to maximize his paint touches.”
The Eagles’ steadfast commitment to stopping Bailey brought his backcourt mates to the forefront of the offense as the Railsplitters combined to attempt 56 three-pointers in the two meetings this season. That’s a clear disconnect from LMU’s normal offensive philosophy that favors three-point attempts off of inside-out play as well as the drive and kick, but the Railsplitters have been up to the challenge, ranking 19th in the nation with a 39.8 percent mark from deep. Lincoln Memorial went 10-for-30 from beyond the arc in the loss on Feb. 5, but responded with a season-high 12 three-pointers on 26 tries in Tex Turner..
The Railsplitters will look for guards Chance Jones, Luquon Choice and Tim Pierce to continue to produce from outside as those three have combined to hit 137 of LMU’s 176 trifectas. Jones is scoring 14.9 points per game while shooting 43.7 percent from deep, while Choice is contributing nine points per with a team-high 59 three-pointers this season. Pierce is pitching in 7.3 points per and he has hit two or more three-pointers in five of his last six games. The offense will by keyed at the point by Lorenza Ross, who is averaging 10.1 points and 4.4 assists.
The Railsplitters’ defensive game play will revolve around halting All-Southeast Region selections Antoine Davis and Ishmael Sanders, as that duo is combining for nearly 40 points per game. Davis is filling out the stat sheet with 19.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, while Sanders averages 20 points, 3.1 boards and three assists. The Eagles were the only team to earn two selections to the All-Region team.
“In terms of minimizing Sanders and Davis that is easier said than done,” said Schertz. “If it was easy they wouldn’t have averaged 20 points a game each over the last three years against defenses that are designed to limit them. That being said, one of the things we always talk about is not allowing our opponent to play well. The teams still playing are so good that if you allow them to play well you will be headed home. We have to limit Ish’s freedom at the three-point line and with Antoine you have to limit his effectiveness in the post and stay between him and the basket when he puts his shoulders down and goes to the rim.”
In LMU’s loss to Carson-Newman, Davis, Sanders and point guard Jared Johnson combined for 62 of the Eagles’ 79 points. But on Feb. 26 the Railsplitters held that trio to 34 points and only 12 in the second half of a 77-60 rout. Davis was held scoreless in the second stanza while Sanders contributed only three points in the final 20 minutes.
The Eagles (19-8) are returning to the floor for the first time since bailing out of the SAC Tournement with an 80-72 quarterfinal loss to seventh-seeded Coker on March 5.
A win would propel Lincoln Memorial to the regional semifinals for the fourth consecutive year and give the Railsplitters the SAC record for single-season wins.
The Railsplitters and Eagles tip-off at 2:30 p.m. The winner advances to Sunday’s semifinal to play No.3 Montevallo or No.6 Georgia Southwestern. Live stats, audio and video will be provided by USC Aiken on the 2014 Southeast Regional Championship Page at pacersports.com, while listeners can tune in to Voice of the Railsplitters Rusty Peace at WLMU 91.3 The Gap.