GREENEVILLE, Tenn. --- Cory Thomas poured in a game-high 24 points to lead the fifth-seeded Lenoir-Rhyne University men's basketball team to a 70-58 win over No. 4 seed Tusculum University Wednesday night in a quarterfinal game of the 2019 Pilot Flying J South Atlantic Conference Championship.
The Bears (20-9) advance to Saturday's semifinal against top-seeded and No. 6 nationally-ranked Queens University of Charlotte which will tip off at 12 p.m. at Timmons Arena in Greenville, South Carolina. Tusculum has its season-long six-game winning streak snapped as the Pioneers end their season at 16-13 overall, a 10-win improvement from last year's 6-21 squad.
Djibril Diallo added 10 points and eight rebounds for the Bears, while teammates R.J. Gunn and Darius Simmons tallied nine points each in the victory.
TU freshman guard Trenton Gibson led the short-handed Pioneers as he scored a season-high 22 points to go along with a team-high eight rebounds. Junior Caleb Hodnett added 13 points and five rebounds, while junior Dillon Smith tallied 11 points in the loss. Senior Donovan Donaldson, who was battling an injury, was held to nine points as he gutted it out for 38 minutes. TU was also without the services of their No. 3 scorer and top-defender Tariq Jenkins, who was injured earlier this week.
Lenoir-Rhyne (No. 7 in NCAA Division II Southeast Region) closed out the first half with a 13-4 run over the final 9:11 as the Bears turned an eight-point deficit into a 25-24 halftime lead.
LR scored the first points of the second half to extend the run to 15-4, but the Pioneers responded with a Smith three-pointer and two free throws from Hodnett as the Pioneers retook the lead at 29-27 with 18:14 remaining.
The Bears battled back with seven unanswered points to take a 34-29 lead with 16:39 to go. The Pioneers responded with 7-2 spurt to tie the game at 35-35 with 15:50 remaining.
With the scored tied a 39-39, L-R got two free throws from Darius Simmons and an Emmanuel Wembi jumper as the Bears led 43-39 with 11:05 left.
The Pioneers regained the lead with a 5-0 run including a Smith steal and layup and three free throws from Hodnett as TU was up 44-43 with 8:43 to go. Simmons answered with a jumper on the Bears next trip down the floor, but after a timeout, Smith canned a long triple to give TU a 47-45 lead at the 7:39 mark of the period.
With the score tied for a 10th and final time at 49-49, the Bears erupted on a 15-5 run over the next 5:26 including nine straight points to give L-R a 64-54 lead with 43 seconds remaining. Donaldson made a jumper in the paint to make it 64-56 with 29.1 seconds remaining, but that would be as close as the Pioneers would get.
The Bears finished the game shooting 45.3 percent from the floor including 15-of-25 in the second half for 60 percent. Lenoir-Rhyne who outscored TU 40-18 in the paint, shot a remarkable 21-of-31 inside the three-point arc (67.7%). L-R also made their free throws when they counted as the Bears went 14-of-16 at the line in the second half including 13 in a row to end the game.
Tusculum was out-rebounded by a 39-27 margin including 10-5 on the offensive boards resulting in 11 second chance points. L-R also out-scored the TU bench 15-3 on the evening as the Pioneers were held to 37.7 percent shooting but did shoot a respectable 8-of-19 from beyond the arc (42.1%).
Donaldson capped his final game at Tusculum finishing his TU career with 813 points, 197 assists and 122 made three-point field goals in his two seasons in the Black and Orange. Including his two years at Trevecca Nazarene, Donaldson accounted for 1,249 points in his collegiate career.