Lander rides big first quarter, cruises to NCAA Regional first-round victory

Lander rides big first quarter, cruises to NCAA Regional first-round victory

JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – The Lander Bearcats closed the first quarter on a 19-3 run and never looked back, cruising past Limestone College 84-53 in the first round of the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional Friday night at Holt Fieldhouse at Carson-Newman University.

Lander, seeded fourth in the Southeast Regional, improved to 25-7. The Bearcats have now won 25 games in three consecutive seasons for the first time in program history.

The fifth-seeded Saints ended their season at 23-6.

Lander will face No. 1 seed and Regional host Carson-Newman (30-2) Saturday night at 7:30. The Bearcats lost to Carson-Newman 90-87 earlier this season, Nov. 11 at the PBC/SAC Challenge in Aiken, S.C. Carson-Newman, which is ranked No. 6 nationally, survived No. 8 seed Anderson University's upset bid 70-62 earlier Friday. Carson-Newman trailed the game late.

The third-seeded University of North Georgia takes on No. 2 seed Wingate in Saturday's other Regional semifinal at 5 p.m. Peach Belt Conference champion North Georgia beat No. 6 seed Barton 81-76 Friday while Wingate downed No. 7 Columbus State 90-79 in overtime.

Saturday's winners meet Monday night at Holt Fieldhouse for the Regional championship, with Monday's winner advancing to the national Elite Eight.

Lander is making its 12th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, all since 1999. The Bearcats are in the Southeast Regional for the fourth consecutive season.

Lander has beaten Limestone all three times that they have met in the NCAA Tournament, including last year. The Bearcats have now won 20 of their last 21 meetings against Limestone.

Chelsea Mitchell was Lander's top scorer Friday with 16 points, making six of 10 shots from the floor and all four free throws while pacing the Bearcats with four steals.

Destinee Langford added 15 points for Lander while leading the team with nine rebounds and five assists.

Jessica Harris contributed 13 points for the Bearcats, all in the first half including 10 in the opening quarter. She made four of six shots including three of five from behind the arc while adding four assists.

Breshay Johnson added 11 points for Lander, hitting seven of 10 free throws. Ariana Sanders pitched in eight points off the Lander bench while Destinee Webster added seven points, all in the fourth quarter. Lea Petit had six rebounds off the Bearcats bench.

Keidra Smith led Limestone with 16 points while Jasmine Richardson added 13 points. Aaliyah Davis paced the Saints with nine rebounds.

Lander dominated the first quarter, forcing 10 Limestone turnovers and making 10 of 14 shots from the floor (71 percent). The Bearcats trailed 7-6 but closed the opening period on a 19-3 run to lead 25-10 going into the second quarter. They were never threatened after that.

Harris started the run with an acrobatic three-point play and added a pair of 3-pointers, including one from the top of the key at the first-quarter buzzer. Johnson, Langford, Tabitha Dailey and Mitchell also scored during the run.

Langford's layup off Mitchell's steal gave Lander a 30-16 lead with 7:32 left in the half. Harris repeated her feat with a 3-pointer with just four seconds left, staking the Bearcats to their biggest lead of the first half at 17 points, 43-26, going into halftime.

Limestone got no closer than 14 in the third quarter. Lander twice built its lead to 19 points and pushed it to 22 on a Sanders 3, making it 62-40 with 2:49 left in the third. Mitchell's put-back upped the advantage to 66-42 going into the final period.

The lead grew to 25 on Langford's three-point play, making it 69-44 with 8:35 to go. Petit's jumper built the advantage even more, 73-46, at the 6:49 mark.

The lead grew to 30 with 1:44 left on Webster's two free throws, making it 82-52. The biggest advantage of the game was 32 points, 84-52, on a Christal Williams basket with 1:01 to go.