LMU set for NCAA Tournament showdown against King
HARROGATE, Tenn. — Seeking their third consecutive trip to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight, the No. 1 nationally-ranked Railsplitters (30-1) open the NCAA Tournament and Southeast Regional play against the King Tornado (19-10) at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday inside Tex Turner Arena. The winner of Saturday’s contest will advance to the round of 32 to face either Carson-Newman or Clayton State at 7:30 on Sunday night.
For the third time in four seasons, the Southeast Regional is being hosted by Lincoln Memorial and the Railsplitters enter the NCAA Tournament as the nation’s No. 1 ranked team, a position they have held for each of the past six weeks.
Lincoln Memorial is set to make its eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance while vying for an unprecedented third straight trip to the national semifinals.
Since making their first appearance in the postseason tournament in 2011, the Railsplitters are 13-7 in NCAA Tournament play. That includes an impressive 9-2 mark over the last two seasons.
Coincidentally, Lincoln Memorial captured its first-ever NCAA Tournament win against King in 2012, beating the Tornado 67-60 in Montevallo, Alabama to launch a string of six straight years in which the Railsplitters have advanced to at least the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Railsplitters were last in action on Sunday, when they claimed the fourth South Atlantic Conference tournament title in program history with a thrilling 77-75 win over then No. 5 Queens at Timmons Arena in Greenville, South Carolina.
Lincoln Memorial trailed by as many as nine points late in the first half and trailed at the half for just the third time all season, but rallied to take as large as an 11-point lead in the second half.
The Railsplitters then survived a furious surge from the Royals to complete the victory. Defense powered that win for LMU, which held Queens to 28.5 percent shooting in the second half.
Senior forward Dorian Pinson was the hero of that win with an otherworldly performance, dropping a career-high 31 points that included the eventual game-winning bucket with seven seconds left. The SAC Championship Most Valuable Player added eight rebounds, six steals, five assists and two blocks while playing all 40 minutes.
The Railsplitters also would not have won if not for the efforts of Kamaran Calhoun, who scored a career-high 19 points in 25 minutes off the bench.
Lincoln Memorial enters the NCAA Tournament riding a 19-game winning streak and a 23-game winning streak at Tex Turner Arena. The Railsplitters’ lone loss this season came against then No. 1 ranked and defending national champions Northwest Missouri State on Dec. 19.
Since then, LMU has rattled off the third-longest active winning streak in the country behind only Western Oregon (22) and Ferris State (20). The Railsplitters have also not lost a home game in well over a full calendar year – a 107-102 setback against Newberry on Dec. 17, 2016.
In that win over Queens, the Railsplitters clinched their fourth consecutive 30-win season, and they are one of only three teams that enter the NCAA Tournament with at least 30 wins along with Ferris State and Northern State.
The Railsplitters open NCAA Tournament play seeking the fourth winning streak of at least 20 games in program history. The 2015-16 team won 24 straight on its way to the national championship game, while the 2010-11 and 2014-15 teams started their seasons 22-0 and 20-0, respectively.
As they have for the nearly the entire season, Lincoln Memorial leads the nation in both field-goal percentage offense and defense, shooting 53.9 percent while holding opponents to 36.2 percent shooting. That has led to a nation-leading average margin of victory of 27 points per game.
Lincoln Memorial has been held below 80 points in just five games this season but the Railsplitters have failed to crack the 80-point threshold in either of their last two games – a 76-46 win over Wingate in the SAC semifinals and a 77-75 win over Queens in the SAC title game. Queens, the No. 2 seed in the region, has been responsible for two of those five occurrences.
That has largely been a product of the nature of postseason basketball, but slow starts and poor three-point shooting also plagued the Railsplitters offensively in their last two outings. They started 1-for-15 against Wingate and 1-for-7 against Queens, and over the last four games the team is a combined 30-for-97 from three-point range, nearly an 11 percent drop from their 41.5 percent mark for the season.
The Railsplitters are led into the NCAA Tournament by arguably the most talented starting five in the country, one that includes three All-SAC first team selections in Pinson, Emanuel Terry and Trevon Shaw, one All-SAC second team pick in Cornelius Taylor and the SAC Player and Defensive Player of the Year in Terry.
Pinson, Terry and Shaw are each top 50 finalists for the 2018 Bevo Francis Award, given annually to the best player outside of the NCAA Division I ranks.
For their first-round matchup, the two-time defending Southeast Region champion Railsplitters draw a familiar foe in the King Tornado, who solidified their spot in the NCAA Tournament by winning the Conference Carolinas regular-season crown with a 14-4 league mark.
King was riding a six-game winning streak into the Conference Carolinas Tournament that included a win over Lees-McRae, who is also in the Southeast Regional field, but were upset by Belmont Abbey 82-74 in the quarterfinal round.
The Tornado’s postseason hopes were nearly dashed by eight-seeded Belmont Abbey, who fell just shy of completing a Cinderella run to the Conference Carolinas title and earning an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament with a two-point loss to Lees-McRae in the final. The Crusaders’ misfortunes, though, ultimately clinched King’s spot in the NCAA Tournament field as the final at-large berth.
King is set to make its third NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2016. The Railsplitters ended the Tornado’s first-ever NCAA Tournament run in 2012, while Lenoir-Rhyne took down King in 2016 at Tex Turner Arena in its most recent appearance.
The Tornado are led by three All-Conference Carolinas selections, including Player of the Year Jordan Floyd. The 6-2 guard is putting up 21.5 points per game while shooting 41.8 percent from the field. He leads the team with 83 three-pointers and 41 steals.
Je’Don Young and Mack Owens earned spots on the All-Conference Carolinas second team. Young is averaging 14.8 points per game and has buried 71 triples, while Owens has posted per-game average of 13.2 points and a team-leading 9.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.1 percent from the field.
Mike Salomon is another x-factor for the Tornado, as he has pitched in 11.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.
Three-point shooting is King’s bread and butter and could provide a road map for a potential upset. The Tornado rank 15th nationally with 11.0 triples per game and are shooting an efficient 38.6 percent from deep. Floyd, Young and Salomon have each accounted for over 70 3-pointers this season. The Railsplitters rank 14th nationally with 11.4 3-pointers per game on a 41.5 percent mark.
In full, King is average both defensively and offensively. The Tornado are holding opponents to 77.1 points per game, 44.4 percent shooting and 34.6 percent from three. They are a bit better offensively with 83 points per game, 44.8 percent shooting and that 38.6 percent clip from three.
King is a solid rebounding team that led the Conference Carolinas in rebounding margin with a 4.3 edge on the glass. The Railsplitters are one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, though, ranking fourth nationally in rebounding margin with a plus 9.7 edge.
Saturday will mark the 94th all-time meeting between Lincoln Memorial and King and the second this season. The Railsplitters are a dominant 68-26 all-time against the Tornado and have won 12 of the last 13 meetings, including a 94-60 obliteration of the Tornado on Nov. 11.
In that contest, pretty much everything went right for the Railsplitters while almost everything went wrong for King. Lincoln Memorial shot 55 percent from the field and went 14-for-30 from three-point territory, while King shot a dreadful 30.8 percent.
Shaw led LMU with 34 points and 10 3-pointers, while Pinson had 17, Taylor had 16 and Terry had 15. Young paced the Tornado with 18 points while Floyd produced 15.
Tip-off between the Railsplitters and Tornado in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament is set for 5:30 p.m. at Tex Turner Arena. Live stats, video and audio links are available at www.lmurailsplitters.