Men's Basketball: Second half blitz sends Panthers past N.C. Wesleyan to reach USA South title game

Men's Basketball: Second half blitz sends Panthers past N.C. Wesleyan to reach USA South title game

ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. - LaGrange used a second half blitz Friday to down top-seeded N.C. Wesleyan 99-87 to reach the USA South Tournament championship game for the third straight year.

The two-time defending champions will face second-seeded Covenant for the title and automatic NCAA tournament bid Saturday at 2 p.m. The Panthers won both regular season meetings against the Scots.

The Panthers, now 20-7, turned the tables on the Bishops (20-7) from their regular season meeting. The Bishops used a 65-point second half to down the Panthers 114-98 in Mariotti Gym on Feb. 6. Friday night, the Panthers wiped out the Bishops' 54-39 halftime lead. 

The Panthers staged a similar comeback in the 2014 title game against Huntingdon. They trailed by 14 points before rallying to win 94-84.

Coach Kendal Wallace was asked how the comeback against the Bishops compared to the one against Huntingdon.

"I'm not sure, but that comeback led to a championship, this one led to a chance at a championship, against a very talented Covenant squad, so they are different in that regard," pointed out Wallace. "At halftime, we told them that we needed to attack and stop settling for 3's, we thrive on attacking offensively and we needed to get back to that.

"We played a great team defensive half as well, held their best players in check and just a total team effort on both sides of the ball."

Junior Drew Vanderbrook sparked the second half comeback by scoring all 19 of his points in the second half. Vanderbrook was 5-for-9 from 3-point range. 

The Panthers finished the game with 15 3-pointers, nine coming in the first half. The Bishops, who had 13 in the first meeting, were held to 7-of-22 on 3s.

Justyn Olson led all scorers with 26 points. In addition to Vanderbrook, Braxton Ford and Mark Wagner also had 19 points each. Alex Bonner had eight points, while Jacob Gaetanos had two key baskets and tied for team honors with six rebounds.

"Jacob came in and anchored the defense and the usual suspects, Justyn, Mark, Brax and Drew stepped up offensively," Wallace said. "We still have a lot of work to do." 

The Panthers had trailed in the game since the 7:46 mark of the first half. They were down 64-52 with 12:53 remaining in the game. 

Ford started a 22-5 run over the next six minutes with a 3-pointer. Vanderbrook had 13 of his points and Gaetanos had two big baskets during this span. He had three treys and finished with a steal at the defensive end and a dunk at the other end for a 74-69 lead.

The Bishops never recovered. Olson scored eight straight points to push the Panthers' lead to 14, 91-77, with 2:14 left. The Panthers made 14-of-16 at the free throw line down the stretch to seal the win.

The Panthers have 20 wins in a season for the first time since the 1992-93 team won 21.