After a perfect 2-0 record last week, the Tusculum University men’s basketball team will be back in action for a pair of South Atlantic Conference contests this week.
The Pioneers (5-1, 5-1 SAC) will be on the road on Wednesday to take on Newberry College in a COVID postponed game from December. Tusculum will be back home for the final scheduled contest at Pioneer Arena for January, hosting Coker University. Both games are slated to tip-off at 4 p.m.
TU is in a three-way tie for first place in the SAC standings with the nationally-ranked duo of Lincoln Memorial University (7-1, 5-1 SAC) and Queens University of Charlotte (6-2, 5-1 SAC).
The Pioneers are off to their best start to a season in 13 years as the 2006-07 team was the last to start a year 5-1 or better. TU’s 5-1 league start is its second in as many seasons matching the five wins through six SAC games from last year’s club.
Tusculum continues to receive votes in this week’s NABC Division II Coaches Poll.
The Pioneers are on the verge of climbing back into the NABC Top-25 as TU has the most points of the teams listed in the “others receiving votes” with 16 and are right behind Sioux Falls, which holds the No. 25 spot.
Tusculum is one of four South Atlantic Conference programs listed in this week’s NABC rankings. Lincoln Memorial suffered its first loss of the year to Lenoir-Rhyne and dropped four spots to No. 6, while Queens University of Charlotte climbed four sports and is No. 15 in NCAA Division II. Lenoir-Rhyne is also receiving votes in this week’s rankings.
Colorado School of Mines is the new No. 1 team in the country as the 8-0 Orediggers hold the top spot. Northern State is second, followed by previous No. 1 Northwest Missouri State who is now in third. West Liberty is fourth, followed by Valdosta State, Lincoln Memorial, West Texas A&M, Washburn, Colorado Mesa and Augusta to comprise the top-10.
LAST WEEK IN REVIEW
It was the “Trenton Gibson Show” last week for Tusculum as the junior guard averaged 23 points per contest and led the Pioneers to wins over Carson-Newman and Catawba.
Gibson poured in 22 points and dished out seven assists in TU’s 82-72 home victory against Carson-Newman. The Pioneers vaulted out to a 20-point lead at halftime and shot lights out going 64 percent from the floor, including 11-of-13 from 3-point territory to take a 52-32 advantage into the locker room.
The Eagles put up a furious charge in the second half and trimmed the TU lead to 76-69 with 2:17 remaining. But the Pioneers went 9-of-11 from the foul line in the final five minutes to seal the victory.
Freshman Kobe Funderburk tied a TU single-game record going a perfect 5-of-5 from 3-point territory for his season-best 15 points. Rookie forward Inady Legiste added 14 points and three blocked shots while Justin Mitchell finished with 11 markers as the Pioneers recorded their fourth win over C-N in five tries.
Gibson came through with a game-high 24 points and connect on the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer as the Pioneers rallied from a seven-point deficit with less than two minutes to go to edge Catawba College 74-72 on Saturday. The win snapped a five-game losing streak to Catawba who had qualified for the NCAA Division II Tournament in each of the last two seasons.
The buzzer-beater win was the first by Tusculum since Douglas Tshomba hit the game-winning triple in the Pioneers’ 89-88 win over Catawba at then Alpine Arena on Feb. 12, 2005.
TU closed out the game with a 10-1 run over the final 1:48 including a 3-pointer from Zack Dixon and Gibson’s game-winning triple at the horn.
Senior Brandon Mitchell tallied a team-best nine rebounds to go along with his 12 points and four blocked shots. Dixon finished the game with 10 points for his second double-digit game of the season.
SCOUTING THE PIONEERS
Tusculum head coach JT Burton has guided the Pioneer program to back-to-back winning campaigns and has this year’s edition off to a sizzling start.
TU boasts the No. 2 scoring offense in the league averaging 89.2 points per game which is the 12th-best in the country. Tusculum leads the league in blocked shots per game (4.0 bpg – 17th in NCAA II) and offensive rebounds per game (12.67 rpg – 25th in NCAA II). The Pioneers are also second in the SAC in 3-point field goal percentage (39.0% — 33rd in NCAA II), 3-pointers made per game (10.3 – 21st in NCAA II) and steals (8.5 spg – 21st in NCAA II).
Gibson leads the Pioneers in its top three statistical categories including scoring where he is posting 21.5 points per game which is third-best in the SAC and 25th in the country. In his last three games he is averaging 22.3 points per game while shooting 60 percent from 3-point land and 90 percent at the free throw line. The Murfreesboro junior is also the team-leader in assists, dishing out 5.3 helpers per night which are tops in the league and 27th in the nation. Gibson is grabbing a team-best 6.5 rebounds per game (9th in SAC) and shooting 88.5 percent from the charity stripe (6th in SAC).
Sophomore forward Joshua Scott is third on the roster averaging 8.2 points per game while also grabbing 4.8 boards per contest. The Pompano Beach, Florida product has earned the start in all six games this season for the Pioneers.
Senior forward Brandon Mitchell continues to be TU’s leader in blocked shots with 10 rejections through six games. His 1.67 blocks per game average is second in the SAC and 32nd in the country. He added four more blocks to his season tally at Catawba on Saturday including some key defensive plays down the stretch. The Virginia Beach, Virginia native is second on the team in rebounding averaging 6.0 boards per game including nine rebounds on Saturday. He is also posting 7.7 points per contest for the Black & Orange.
Sophomore guard Justin Mitchell (Lexington, Ky.) has started in Tusculum’s last two victories. He is tallying 7.7 points and 2.5 rebounds per outing. Sophomore guard Keaston Brown (Lexington, Ky.) is one of four players to start in all six games this season is averaging 6.3 points and 2.7 points per game. He is second on the team in assists (2.3 apg) and steals (1.2 spg) per game.
Freshman guard Kobe Funderburk (Charlotte, N.C.) has been one of the bright newcomers this season as he has connected on 11 of his 13 3-point attempts this season for a sizzling 85 percent from downtown. He is averaging 6.6 points per game including 10.5 ppg in his last two games.
Also contributing valuable minutes off the bench for the Pioneers is freshman forward Inady Legiste. Legiste (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) is recording 7.8 points and 5.0 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc and 75 percent from the charity stripe.
Tusculum and Newberry meet on the hardwood for the first of two meetings this season. The two teams are scheduled to play again in Greeneville next month. The Wolves are 2-2 including 1-1 last week in a pair of games against Wingate University. Last Tuesday, Newberry came away with an impressive 83-75 road win at Wingate, but in the rematch 24 hours later at Newberry, the Bulldogs came away with a 70-62 victory.
Newberry opened the season with a road loss at second-ranked Lincoln Memorial University, but responded with a 70-67 win at Carson-Newman on Dec. 2.
Junior TJ Brown leads Newberry offensively averaging 19 points per game (6th in SAC) including a season-best 25 markers in the win at Carson-Newman. Brown is also the team leader in 3-point percentage (44%) while averaging 2.75 treys per game which is the fourth-best average in the conference.
Senior Marcus Ford is averaging 12 points per game and has made all 15 of his free throw attempts. Junior forward QuanDaveon is the team leader on the glass averaging 8.3 boards per game to go along with his 15.3 points per game average (10th in SAC). He is second on the SAC in field goal percentage (.568) and posted a season-best 21 points in his last outing against Wingate.
Veteran head coach Jason Taylor is in his second season at Newberry as he looks to build the Wolves into the SAC power similar to the job he did in his nine years at Anderson. He guided the Trojans to six winning seasons resulting in four 20-win campaigns and four NCAA Tournament appearances.
The Coker Cobras enter this week’s action riding a three-game winning streak to improve to 4-2 (4-2 SAC) on the season and find themselves in the top portion of the league standings. Coker began its winning streak with a 52-51 home win over Limestone and followed with back-to-back home victories over UVA Wise including Saturday’s 95-91 overtime triumph over the Cavaliers. Prior to playing Tusculum, the Cobras will be at Wingate on Wednesday night.
Three Cobras are scoring in double figures for Coker including the junior trio of Anthony Thomas (12.8 ppg), Malcolm Kennedy (12.0 ppg) and Chandley Lindsay. Lindsay and Kennedy tallied 19 points each in Saturday’s win over UVA Wise, while Thomas contributed 14 markers.
Lindsay is the early conference-leader in steals per game averaging 2.17 thefts per contest which are also 46th in the nation.
Head coach Jacob Merrill is in his second season at the helm of the Coker program.
SERIES VS. NEWBERRY
This will be the 46th meeting between Tusculum and Newberry in a series which began in 1978. Tusculum has won four in a row and five of the last six meetings to take a 23-22 lead in the series. The last five meetings have been decided by 10 points or less with two of those games going into overtime. Tusculum is 3-0 all-time in overtime games against the Wolves with two of them coming at Eleazer Arena.
SERIES VS. COKER
Tusculum and Coker will be playing for a 15th time on the basketball hardwood. The Cobras lead the all-time series 8-6, but TU has won five of the last eight encounters, including three of the four encounters during the Coach Burton era (2018-present).
FOLLOW THE GAMES
The “Voice of the Pioneers” Brian Stayton describes all the action of Tusculum basketball on the Pioneer Sports Network. Fans can listen locally on WSMG Radio at 95.5 FM and 1450 AM, and on-line at jewel955.com. Live video and live stats links for all games this week are also available at www.TusculumPioneers.com.