JEFFERSON CITY–Carson-Newman (20-7) used a 22-2 run spanning the final eight minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half to take a 15-point lead then hang on for a 58-54 win over Lenoir-Rhyne (18-9) in the quarterfinals of the Food Lion South Atlantic Conference
The Eagles make their first trip to the semifinals under head coach Chuck Benson. Carson-Newman last made it to Hickory, N.C. in the 2009-2010 season. This time the Eagles advance to Greenville, S.C. to take on number one seed LMU, which defeated Tusculum 82-53, at 5:30 p.m., Saturday.
The win also secured Carson-Newman its first 20-win season since 2002-03.
“We’re happy to be in the semis,” Benson said. “But we don’t put any greater point of emphasis on this game or that game than any others. I’m glad we get to continue to play, especially for our seniors.”
Carson-Newman held L-R to just one field goal – a Jarvis Perry jumper from the middle of the lane with 2:42 left in the first half – during that 12-minute span where C-N went on the 22-2 run to take a 15-point lead.
“The irony of this whole thing,” Benson said. “Is that we averaged 58 points in those games down the stretch. Tonight we score 58 and pull it out thanks to defense and rebounding.”
However, Lenoir-Rhyne would turn the tables on the Eagles late in the second half. Carson-Newman would score just once – a right baseline drive and dunk from Cody Henegar with eight minutes to go – over a 10-minute stretch beginning at the 12-minute mark.
Over that span, L-R went on an 11-2 spurt to close within three points with two minutes left after a Perry free throw. However, on the ensuing possession, SAC player of the year Antoine Davis buried an open three from the right corner to put the Eagles ahead by six. The Eagles would lead by at least two possessions for the rest of the game thanks to free throw shooting.
Carson-Newman was six-for-seven at the stripe in the final 90 seconds.
Benson said the Holt Fieldhouse faithful played a role in pushing the Eagles to a win.
“It’s as good of a student crowd as we had tonight,” Benson said. “They we’re rowdy and they gave us a distinct home court advantage. It was as good as it’s been all season and out kids went over and thanked them after the game for that.”
Ish Sanders rattled home 16 points for C-N, while Antoine Davis put in his fourth career double-double and his second this season with a 14-point, 10-rebound effort. Carson Brooks scored 11 on five-for-six shooting off the bench, including three dunks.
However, for Benson it was the emotional leadership of senior Marcellous Perez who really made the difference in the game.
“He’s not ready for this season to be over,” Benson said. “He wants to make a run in this championship. Without him tonight, we don’t win. He was an inspiration and a catalyst in the first half. There’s not a stat line for his fight and his will.”
Perez had eight points, including four free throws in the final minute to seal the game, along with six assists and just two turnovers.
Carson-Newman’s defense held L-R to 37.7 percent shooting for the night. The Eagles limited first team All-SAC member Denzel Dillingham to 13 points on five-for-13 shooting – six below his average. Dillingham averaged 30 points per game last week in winning the league’s final player of the week honor.
Carson-Newman also thwarted R.J. McClure. The junior dropped 22 on the Eagles in the previous meeting in early February. C-N limited him to nine points on two-of-10 shooting.
“We wanted to key in on Dillingham and McClure,” Benson said. “I was pleased with our defense throughout the second half. But it was our rebounding that really pulled us through.”
C-N outrebounded the Bears 37-33.
The Eagles will play LMU at 5:30 p.m. in the semifinals from Timmons Arena. Coverage on the Coca-Cola Eagle Sports Network begins at 5:15 with the Farm Bureau Countdown to Tipoff on 106.3 ESPN Radio The Zone (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com