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Pioneers rally again to beat Carson-Newman, advance to SAC finals

Kasey Johnson defends Kayla Marosites in Saturday's SAC Championship semifinal (photo by Stacey Wylie)
Kasey Johnson defends Kayla Marosites in Saturday's SAC Championship semifinal (photo by Stacey Wylie)

GREENVILLE, S.C. --- Kasey Johnson sank a career-high six three-pointers and scored a game-high 24 points as Tusculum University rallied for an 81-73 victory over Carson-Newman University in the semifinal round of the Pilot/Flying J South Atlantic Conference Women's Basketball Championship Saturday afternoon at Timmons Arena.

Mya Belton came off the bench to match her season high with 14 points while grabbing eight rebounds, and Mia Long added 11 points, eight rebounds and seven assists as the third-seeded Pioneers (23-7) advanced to the finals for the first time since 2013, where they will face top-seeded Anderson on Sunday at 1 p.m. The Pioneers swept all three meetings with the Eagles this season by erasing double-digit deficits in each win, including a 10-point first-half margin in Saturday's victory.

Tusculum, which set a SAC tournament record with 14 three-pointers in Wednesday's 82-40 quarterfinal win over Wingate, set a new record against Carson-Newman by hitting 15 threes in a tournament single-game record 42 attempts. The Pioneers have established tournament records for three-pointers made (29) and attempted (74) in just two games, breaking the old marks of 26 made and 61 attempted by Presbyterian across three games in 2000.

Kayla Marosites led the second-seeded Eagles (22-8) with 23 points and seven rebounds, but Carson-Newman shot just 32 percent (8-for-25) in the second half and went just 1-for-8 from three-point range after hitting 5-for-11 in the first half. Braelyn Wykle, who along with Marosites was voted first-team All-SAC earlier this week, finished with seven points on 1-for-6 shooting for the Eagles.

Johnson was 6-for-12 from three-point range and 8-for-16 overall from the field, surpassing her previous career high of five threes set at Lincoln Memorial on Feb. 26. Belton made a season-high four three-pointers, including three in the second half as the Pioneers went 10-for-18 on three-pointers and 15-for-30 overall from the field in the second half, while outscoring the Eagles 50-35. Maddie Sutton also scored in double figures for the Pioneers, collecting eight of her 13 points in the fourth quarter including four key free throws down the stretch.

Tusculum took an early 9-8 lead behind seven points from Johnson, but the Eagles went on a 7-0 run to go up 15-10 on a Marosites bucket with 4:56 left in the first quarter. Tusculum trimmed the deficit to 15-14 on a Long layup with 3:38 to go in the period, but the Eagles again scored seven in a row to go up 22-14 on a three from Marosites with 1:34 left in the first. A three-pointer from Belton in the final seconds of the quarter left the Pioneers facing a 22-18 deficit after one.

The Pioneers turned the ball over on their first three possessions of the second quarter, and the Eagles built their lead back up to eight at 26-18 on a layup by Harli Smith with 8:02 left in the half. Tusculum responded with eight straight points, including three-pointers from Johnson and Jalia Arnwine, to tie the game at 26-26 with 5:39 to go in the half. A layup by the Pioneers' Aliyah Miller tied the game at 28-28 with exactly four minutes to play in the half, but the Eagles' Tori Griffin proceeded to hit three consecutive three-pointers, the last giving Carson-Newman its largest lead of the game at 38-28 with 2:02 left. Johnson connected on a three with 45 seconds left to pull the Pioneers within 38-31 at intermission.

Johnson led all players with 13 points in the first half on 5-for-11 shootings, but Tusculum went just 12-for-35 (34.3 percent) from the field as a team, including 5-for-25 from three-point range, and 2-for-5 at the foul line. Griffin was a perfect 4-for-4 from long range for a team-high 12 points for Carson-Newman, while Marosites added 11 on 5-for-6 shooting as the Eagles went 15-for-33 from the field (45.5 percent) and 5-for-11 from deep.

Carson-Newman maintained its lead until Belton and Johnson hit back-to-back threes to tie the game at 47-47 with 3:29 left in the third quarter. A three-pointer from Kirsten Click again tied the game for the Pioneers at 53-53, but two foul shots in the final seconds of the third quarter from Qua Hines gave the Eagles a 55-53 lead heading to the fourth. Tusculum shot 6-for-12 from three-point range in the third quarter while holding Carson-Newman to just three field goals, though the Eagles were 11-for-13 from the foul line in the quarter.

Tusculum took its first lead since the first quarter at 56-55 on a three-pointer from Johnson with 8:57 left in the game. Carson-Newman went back up 58-56 on a three-point play from Hines, but a basket from Sutton and a three-pointer from Belton gave the Pioneers a 61-58 lead with 7:15 to play. Carson-Newman took its final lead at 65-64 on two free throws from Marosites with 5:48 remaining, but two free throws from Sutton gave Tusculum the lead for good with 5:26 left, and sparked a 9-1 Tusculum run that included a three-pointer from Miller and baskets from Sutton and Brianna Dixon, the latter giving the Pioneers a 73-66 lead with 3:11 left. A Marosites three trimmed the margin to 73-69 with 1:45 remaining, but Long hit a layup with 1:16 left and the Pioneers tacked on six free throws in the final 46 seconds.

Long's eight rebounds matched her season high set Jan. 29 at Lenoir-Rhyne, while Belton's 14 points equaled her season high set against Johnson & Wales on Nov. 22. Johnson's six three-pointers were one shy of the tournament record of seven threes set by Susie Gaines of Gardner-Webb in 1997 and matched by Ashley Cox of Catawba in 2003. Johnson's 24 points were the most for a Pioneer in a SAC Tournament game since Jasmine Gunn scored 25 in a 77-66 Tusculum win over Wingate in the 2011 championship game.

Griffin did not attempt a three-pointer in the second half for the Eagles and finished the game with 14 points in 23 minutes off the bench, while Smith had 10 points and seven rebounds and Hines added 10 points on 1-for-8 shooting from the field. The Eagles finished the game at 39.7 percent shooting (23-for-58) and 6-for-19 from three-point range, although Carson-Newman was 21-for-26 at the foul line. The Eagles finished with a 42-40 advantage in rebounding over the Pioneers, with Carson-Newman committing 17 turnovers to 12 by Tusculum.

The Pioneers, whose 23 wins are their most since finishing 23-10 during their Elite Eight campaign of 2009-10, will be making their first appearance in the SAC Championship final since 2013, when Tusculum lost 55-52 to Anderson. The Trojans (26-4), the defending SAC tournament champions, advanced to the finals with a 75-71 overtime victory over Catawba in the first semifinal. Tusculum is 2-4 all-time in the SAC finals, while Anderson is 2-2. The Trojans swept the season series from the Pioneers, winning 56-47 in Greeneville on Jan. 4 and 54-51 at home on Feb. 15.

Sunday's winner will earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Division II Women's Basketball Tournament, which will tip off on Friday, March 13. The 64-team field, consisting of eight regions of eight teams apiece, will be unveiled on Sunday night at 10 p.m. at ncaa.com.

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