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Pioneers ready to face Belmont Abbey in NCAA tourney opener

Pioneers ready to face Belmont Abbey in NCAA tourney opener

Tournament Central - links to schedule and other host information

GREENEVILLE, Tenn. --- Tusculum University will make its first appearance in the NCAA Division II Women's Basketball Tournament since 2012 when the Pioneers take on Belmont Abbey College in the quarterfinal round of the Southeast Regional Friday night in Greenwood, South Carolina.

Tusculum and Belmont Abbey will play the fourth and final quarterfinal game on Friday, with tipoff scheduled for 7:30 p.m. from Finis Horne Arena on the campus of the top seed, Lander University. The winner will face either the host Bearcats or eighth-seeded Limestone College in the semifinals on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with the regional championship game scheduled for Monday, March 16 at 7 p.m.

The Pioneers (24-7) received the fourth seed in the regional after claiming the automatic bid from the South Atlantic Conference with a 61-49 victory over Anderson in the conference championship game on Sunday. The fifth-seeded Crusaders (27-3) went 21-1 and won the Conference Carolinas regular-season title, but had to settle for an at-large selection after losing 74-69 to Limestone in the league semifinals.

Belmont Abbey's loss to Limestone snapped a 17-game winning streak that began following a 68-62 loss to Barton on Jan. 2. The Crusaders' other loss came in the season opener to the Pioneers by a 55-46 score at King University in the SAC/Conference Carolinas Challenge on Nov. 8.

Tusculum is making its sixth trip to the NCAA tournament, with the previous five appearances coming in consecutive years from 2008 to 2012. The Pioneers are 4-5 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, winning the Southeast Region championship in 2010 at Lander. Tusculum has never faced a Conference Carolinas team in NCAA play, with all eight of their prior games in regional play against members of the Peach Belt Conference.

Belmont Abbey will be making its seventh NCAA appearance, and like Tusculum had a string of five straight trips (1998-2002) with an additional visit in 2014. The Crusaders are 2-6 all-time in NCAA Tournament play, with wins over West Liberty in the first round in 1999 and Wingate in 2014. The Wingate victory was Belmont Abbey's only previous NCAA tournament game against a member of the SAC.

SCOUTING THE PIONEERS
The Pioneers are led by senior guard Mia Long, who was named first-team All-SAC after leading the conference in steals for the second straight season. Long currently ranks second in Division II in both total steals (112) and steals per game (3.61). Her 112 steals broke the school single-season record of 109 that was set by Mitzi Alexander in 1991-92.

Long, who was named Most Valuable Player of the SAC Championship tournament, has at least one steal in 30 of 31 games this season, including 27 in a row. The Ann Arbor, Michigan native leads the Pioneers in scoring at 14.4 points per game, and has scored in double figures in eight straight games and 12 of the last 13.

Long earned MVP honors after averaging 15.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 4.3 steals in three games in the tournament, including a game-high 22 points in the championship. On Feb. 22 against Coker, Long became the 19th player in school history to reach 1,000 points, and the only one to do it while playing just three seasons. Long is the active Division II leader in steals per game (3.39) and ranks eighth among active DII players with 288 steals.

Forward Kasey Johnson has started all 31 games and is averaging 11.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Johnson, a fifth-year graduate student, was named honorable mention All-SAC for the third time in her career after reaching double figures 17 times, including four double-doubles. She scored a career-high 34 points and played all 50 minutes in a double-overtime win at Lenoir-Rhyne on Jan. 29, and ranks 11th in program history with 1,267 points.

Johnson is sixth in the conference in foul shooting at 81.3 percent, and earned a spot on the SAC All-Tournament team by averaging 16.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, highlighted by a career-high six three-pointers during a 24-point performance against Carson-Newman in the semifinals along with 15 points in the championship win over Anderson.

Junior forward Maddie Sutton has posted a team-high eight double-doubles this season and has averaged 9.0 points and a team-high 8.3 rebounds per game, which ranks her fifth in the conference. Sutton, who has nearly averaged a double-double over the past 13 games, ranks eighth in the SAC in free throw percentage at 76.8 percent.

Junior guard Jalia Arnwine is averaging 7.8 points per game and leads the Pioneers with 51 three-pointers. Her average of 1.6 three-pointers per game ranks her 12th in the conference, and she enters the NCAA Tournament having made at least one three-pointer in 20 straight games. Arnwine is one three-pointer shy of becoming the 11th player in school history to make 100 career threes, and is two points away from 500 for her career.

Junior guard Brianna Dixon moved back into the starting lineup prior to the regular-season finale, and averaged 3.7 points, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocked shots per game during the SAC tournament. Dixon has reached double figures in scoring just once this season, finishing with a season-high 13 points against Georgia College on Nov. 15. She averages 3.5 points and 2.5 rebounds per game while playing nearly 18 minutes per contest, and in nine starts is averaging 2.1 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game.

Off the bench, junior guard Aliyah Miller is averaging 6.3 points per game while shooting 34.2 percent from three-point range. Miller had a team-high 15 points in a SAC quarterfinal win over Wingate and averaged 8.7 points per game in the championship run. Sophomore guard Mya Belton emerged in the SAC tournament as she scored 13 and 14 points in the Pioneers' first two wins, including 14 on four three-pointers in the semifinal victory over Carson-Newman. Belton has scored in double figures in four of her last eight games, hitting 14 three-pointers in that span.

Senior forward Jasmine Williams has appeared in all 31 games off the bench and averages 2.7 points and a team-high 0.9 blocked shots per game. Also off the bench, junior guard Elle Hutchinson is averaging 4.4 points per game and freshman guard Kirsten Click averages 2.9 points per game in 21 games, including seven starts late in the season. Sophomore guard Marta Rodrigues has played in 16 games and averages 1.6 points per game, and junior center Taylor Stibbe has played in eight games, with an average of 1.3 points and 1.8 rebounds per game.

As a team, Tusculum leads the SAC and ranks 13th in Division II in steals per game (12.5), hitting double figures in 24 of its 31 games. The Pioneers have thrived in both forcing turnovers and not turning the ball over, leading the SAC in fewest turnovers per game (14.4) and ranking eighth in Division II in turnovers forced per game (22.7). Their turnover margin of plus-8.39 per game is seventh-best in Division II, and the Pioneers have won the turnover battle 18 straight games. Over the last 10 games, the Pioneers are committing just 11.2 turnovers per game while forcing their opponents into 21.6 per contest.

Tusculum ranks fourth in the SAC in scoring offense at 71.8 points per game, and is second to Anderson in scoring defense at 59.6 points per game. Tusculum's scoring margin of plus-12.2 points per game is third in the conference and 37th in Division II, fueled by an offense that makes 8.5 three pointers per game (second in the conference, 30th in Division II). The Pioneers set SAC tournament records for three-pointers made (35) and attempted (96) and single-game records for both makes (15) and attempts (43) against Carson-Newman.

SCOUTING THE CRUSADERS
Belmont Abbey has relied on underclassmen to carry the scoring load this season, as six of the top seven scorers are juniors with the other a sophomore. Just two seniors have had playing time for the Crusaders this season -- starting forward Manuela Fungate (3.5 ppg) and backup guard Caroline Tomey who has scored a total of 24 points in 26 games.

Junior forwards Maria Kuhlman and Allie Downing were each named first-team All-Conference Carolinas after leading the Crusaders in scoring. Kulhman averaged 13.9 points per game to rank sixth in the conference and is fourth in Division II in three-point percentage at 47.5 percent (97-for-204). She has scored in double figures in each of the last eight games, and has made at least one three-pointer in 24 straight contests including 6-for-9 for 24 points against Chowan in the conference quarterfinals.

Downing averages 13.5 points per game and is fourth in the conference with 73 three-pointers, but has averaged just 6.5 points per game over the last four while shooting 3-for-20 from three-point range over that span. Downing shoots 79.4 percent from the foul line and pulls an average of 5.9 rebounds per game.

Another junior, forward Keyanna Spivey, leads the Crusaders in rebounding with 6.7 per game and averages 11.1 points per contest. Spivey has four double-doubles this season and has scored in double figures in six of the last eight games. She had season highs of 23 points and 12 rebounds against Chowan on Jan. 28.

Fungate and junior guard Hannah Roney have each started all 30 games, but combine to average 7.8 points per game between them. Fungate averages 4.9 rebounds per game in just under 15 minutes per contest, and Roney dishes out a team-high 3.7 assists per game for the Crusaders.

Junior center Brittany Autry has come off the bench in all 26 games and averages 11.1 points per game. The 6-1 Autry leads Conference Carolinas in field-goal percentage at 59.2 percent and has scored in double figures in four straight games, including 19 points in the regular-season finale against Mount Olive.

Joining Autry off the bench are sophomore guard Alexis Schulz, who averages 6.9 points per game, and junior guard Irelynn Davisson who shoots 46.1 percent from three-point range and averages 5.4 points per contest.

The Crusaders are second in the conference in scoring at 76.2 points per game, and in scoring defense at 59.6 points per game. The Crusaders' scoring margin of plus-16.6 points per game is 21st in Division II. Belmont Abbey is one of the top shooting teams in the country, ranking third in three-point percentage at 40.2 percent on 8.9 three-pointers per game and seventh in overall field goal percentage at 47.3 percent. The Crusaders are also third nationally in rebound margin (plus-12.4 per game) and 19th in three-point defense at 26.9 percent.

ALL-TIME SERIES
Tusculum and Belmont Abbey have met three times, each coming in the last three seasons. The Pioneers beat the Crusaders 77-55 at Pioneer Arena on Nov. 16, 2017 as Johnson led four players in double figures with 14 points for Tusculum. On Nov. 9, 2018, the Pioneers and Crusaders opened the season at the Wheeler Center in Belmont, with Tusculum winning 64-49 as Long had 13 points and five steals.

This year's season opener between the Pioneers and Crusaders was played Nov. 8 at King University, with Tusculum overcoming a sluggish first half for a 55-46 victory. Long had 13 points and Johnson and Sutton added 12 each for the Pioneers, while Spivey led the Crsusaders with 16 points and Downing added nine points and 13 rebounds. Kuhlman shot just 1-for-6 from three-point range and was held to seven points in 30 minutes.

THE REGIONAL
The winner of the Tusculum/Belmont Abbey game will face either top-seeded Lander (26-5) or eighth-seeded Limestone (23-8) in the semifinal round. The other half of the bracket consists of second seed North Georgia (26-5) against seventh-seeded Clayton State (20-10), who play at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, and third seed Anderson (26-5) against sixth-seeded Carson-Newman (22-8), who tip off the regional at noon on Friday.

FOLLOW THE GAMES
Brian Stayton describes all the action of Tusculum women's basketball on the Pioneer Sports Network. Fans can listen to the games locally on WSMG Radio at 95.5 FM and 1450 AM, and on-line at jewel955.com. A special 30-minute edition of the Pioneer Pre-Game show begins at 7 p.m. Friday, prior to tipoff between the Pioneers and Crusaders at 7:30 p.m. Links to live stats and video are available through tusculumpioneers.com.

NCAA Division II Women's Basketball Tournament
Southeast Regional at Greenwood, South Carolina

Friday, March 13 - Quarterfinals
#3 Anderson vs. #6 Carson-Newman, 12 noon
#2 North Georgia vs. #7 Clayton State, 2:30 pm
#1 Lander vs. #8 Limestone, 5:00 pm
#4 Tusculum vs. #5 Belmont Abbey, 7:30 pm

Saturday, March 14 - Semifinals
Anderson/Carson-Newman winner vs. North Georgia/Clayton State winner, 5:00 pm
Lander/Limestone winner vs. Tusculum/Belmont Abbey winner, 7:30 pm

Monday, March 16 - Finals
Semifinal winners, 7:00 pm

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