MARS HILL, N.C. --- Caleb Hodnett and Donovan Donaldson scored 21 points apiece as Tusculum University rallied from a 12-point deficit to defeat Mars Hill University 81-73 Wednesday night at Stanford Arena in South Atlantic Conference men's basketball action.
Trenton Gibson added 18 points and seven rebounds for the Pioneers (11-12, 7-8 SAC), who swept the season series from the Lions (10-12, 3-11 SAC) for the third straight year, won their sixth straight over Mars Hill on the road and their seventh in a row overall against the Lions.
Tusculum trailed 28-16 midway through the first half but fought back to take the lead before halftime, then led for the final 17 1/2 minutes for their fourth win this season when trailing by double digits. The Pioneers went 6-for-13 from three-point range in the second half and finished the game at 47.5 percent (29-for-61) overall from the field.
Javonte Cook led the Lions with 18 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots as Mars Hill shot 49.2 percent (30-for-61) from the field in the game. However, the Lions went just 7-for-10 at the free-throw line while the Pioneers were 14-for-21 from the stripe as a team.
In addition to his 21 points, Hodnett grabbed 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the season. Donaldson went 5-for-9 from three-point range and dished out a team-best six assists, while Gibson had four assists and three steals and turned the ball over just once in 38 minutes.
Two baskets by Cook in the opening 40 seconds gave Mars Hill a quick 4-0 lead, but the Pioneers came back with a 10-2 run to go ahead 10-6 on a three-pointer by Hodnett with 17:01 left in the first half. Tusculum then went one for its next six from the field over a five-minute span as Mars Hill used a 15-2 run to take a 21-12 lead with 12:09 left in the half.
A basket by Cook gave the Lions their largest lead of the night at 28-16 with 9:59 left in the opening half, but the Pioneers answered with a 9-1 run to cut the margin to 29-25 on a Gibson free throw with 6:23 remaining in the half. A three-pointer by the Lions' Reggie Wright momentarily stopped the Pioneer momentum, but baskets from Gibson and Tariq Jenkins and a three from Donaldson tied the game at 32-32 with 3:12 left in the half.
Tusculum regained the lead at 33-32 on a foul shot by Jenkins with 2:19 left in the half, but a three-pointer by Justen Hartfield and a layup by Austin Gilyard enabled the Lions to carry a 37-36 lead into halftime. The Pioneers shot 51.9 percent (14-for-27) from the field in the half, led by Hodnett with 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting, while the Lions were paced by Cook and Ja'Shawn Brooks with eight points apiece.
The Pioneers trailed 39-36 following a layup by Dotson Griffin with 18:54 to play, but baskets by Jenkins and Jackie Davis put Tusculum ahead for good with 17:32 to play. A three-pointer by Gibson was part of a 9-2 Tusculum run that gave the Pioneers a 51-43 lead with 11:37 left. Mars Hill cut the margin to 54-52 on a jumper by Gilyard with 8:42 left, but back-to-back three-pointers from Donaldson helped Tusculum to a 61-52 advantage with 6:58 remaining.
A putback by Austin Stone with 5:45 left trimmed the Tusculum lead to 62-58, but a three-point play by Jenkins, a three-pointer by Donaldson and another by Gibson sent the Pioneers to their largest lead at 73-62 with 2:31 left, and Mars Hill could get no closer than the final eight-point margin as Tusculum went 6-for-6 from the foul line in the final 1:16.
Hartfield and Wright joined Cook in double figures for Mars Hill with 13 and 11 points, respectively. The Lions were outrebounded 35-33 by the Pioneers and turned the ball over 13 times to 12 by Tusculum. The Pioneers did manage to score 21 points off the Mars Hill turnovers, while the Lions mustered just 11 points off the Tusculum miscues.
Jenkins was the fourth Pioneer to reach double figures in the game, scoring 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting in 32 minutes. The Tusculum starting five combined for 77 of the team's 81 points in the game.
The Pioneers are in sole possession of sixth place in the SAC standings following Wednesday's win, and face fifth-place Lenoir-Rhyne on Saturday at 4 p.m. at Pioneer Arena. The Bears beat the Pioneers 77-74 on their home court on Jan. 5, and are 9-6 in the conference heading into Saturday's matchup.