GREENEVILLE — The new year hasn’t been especially kind to the Tusculum College women’s basketball team. The Pioneers cruised through the end of 2012, beating two Top 25 opponents, including then No. 13-ranked Shaw, the defending NCAA Division II National Champions.
But January has been the coldest month for Tusculum. The Pioneers narrowly escaped their second loss in a row, coming back from a 12-point deficit to defeat arch South Atlantic rival Carson-Newman 55-51 at Pioneer Arena Wednesday night.
Tusculum (8-3, 2-1 SAC) dropped its first game of 2013 last Friday in a 56-48 loss to Wingate. Before that the Pioneers were hovering right outside the Top 25. The difference against C-N down the stretch for the Pioneers — rebounding. Tusculum held the Lady Eagles (7-3, 1-2) to just eight offensive rebounds. The Pioneers grabbed 17.
“That’s been a huge emphasis for us, not giving up on offensive rebounds,” Tusculum coach Katrina Williams said. “We need to get to the glass and get those second opportunities. We did a better job in the second half of that. That was the most disturbing stat when we were at Wingate. We gave up 23 offensive rebounds.”
The final outcome of the game might have hinged on a foul call. Carson-Newman possessed the ball with 23 seconds to go, down by just two points. After in-bounding the ball, freshman guard Jai Jai McLaughlin was called for a moving screen after Tusculum’s Breaira Barksdale ended up on the floor. C-N coach Mike Mincey wasn’t convinced.
“I burned my last time out to draw up a play,” Mincey said. “We passed it to our two. She (Barksdale) went down there and acted like somebody nailed her with a Mac truck. They called it because it looked bad. I credit Barksdale for a good play, whether she flopped or was knocked down. You better believe when I get home I’m going to download that film.”
The Lady Eagles led almost the entire first half, opening the game with a 6-2 run fueled by Shyra Clark. Tusculum briefly took the lead midway through the period with a jumper from Kristen McMillion and a three-pointer from Barksdale. C-N immediately cut it back down, storming back ahead by six on a jump shot from freshman guard Tatum Burstrom.
“They got us out of our offense,” Williams said. “We weren’t doing a good job executing and when we did get open shots, we didn’t knock them down. We’ve got to be better than that. You’ve got to deserve to be successful and in the first half we didn’t deserve it.”
A three from Jai Jai McLaughlin with five minutes to go put Carson-Newman up by seven. A jumper from Clark and then a hoop and harm three-point play from forward Courdne Miles with 43 seconds to go gave the Lady Eagles a 33-21 lead at the buzzer.
Tusculum immediately began slicing into the lead after the break with a 7-0 run, capped by a three-pointer from Kendal Baxter. Baxter eventually tied the game with two free throws with 12:35 to go. Baxter finished the game with 14 points.
C-N still wasn’t finished, pulling back ahead by nine over the next three minutes. Former Jefferson County High School standout Lacy Miller buried a three to put the Lady Eagles up 45-36. Instead of pouring on, C-N shut down and three minutes later Baxter gave Tusculum the lead again on a threepointer.
“Kendall has been in a little bit of a slump,” Williams said. “She didn’t shoot the ball well early today, but she absolutely knocked down big shots at the end. That’s part of being a great player.”
C-N tied the game with a layup from Nikki James, but a free throw from Nequoiah Anderson would put the Pioneers up for good.
Barksdale scored 12 for the Pioneers, with Blakeley Burleson adding 10. Clark led Carson-Newman with 17 points and seven rebounds.
Tusculum next travels to Catawba to take on the Lady Indians (6-5, 2-1) Saturday at 2 p.m. The Lady Eagles host Newberry (10-3, 2-1) at Holt Fieldhouse Saturday with tip-off scheduled for 2 p.m.