N.C. Wesleyan forward Brandon Brown, left, is blocked by LaGrange forward Mike White on Friday during the USA South Conference tournament semifinal game at Everett Gymnasium.
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N.C. Wesleyan forward Brandon Brown, left, is blocked by LaGrange forward Mike White on Friday during the USA South Conference tournament semifinal game at Everett Gymnasium.

Bishops' season likely over after USAS semifinals loss to LaGrange

By FOSTER LANDER

Sports Writer

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For the second night in a row, N.C. Wesleyan compiled a huge run to build a double-digit lead.

Thursday evening, it was a 22-0 spurt early in the second half of a victory over Averett in the USA South tournament quarterfinals.

Friday, the Bishops closed out the first half on a 25-9 rush to go into halftime with a 54-39 lead.

Only this time, N.C. Wesleyan couldn’t make the lead stick.

Fourth-seeded LaGrange stormed back, scoring 60 points on 60.7 percent shooting from the floor in the second half, to beat the top-seeded Bishops, 99-87, at Everett Gymnasium and prevent N.C. Wesleyan from playing for a berth in the NCAA Tournament this afternoon on its home court.

“You’re not going to beat much of anybody, giving up that many points in 20 minutes,” N.C. Wesleyan coach John Thompson said. “Credit to LaGrange, though, because they hit a bunch of shots.”

N.C. Wesleyan (20-6 overall), the regular-season USA South champions, now will have to wait until Sunday to find out if they did enough to earn an at-large bid to what would be the program’s first NCAA Tournament since 2011.

“Whether we get to keep
playing or not, that’s out of our hands now,” Bishops forward Adrian Moore said after scoring a team-high 19 points on Friday. “I think we did enough...we put another banner up on that wall. But we’ll find out.”

Thompson said he thought the Bishops hit a wall at the 11-minute mark of the second half, whether from physical fatigue or from seeing the same shots that fell all through the first half insteaad clanging off the rim.

N.C. Wesleyan led, 66-55, with 12:33 to play after an Isaiah Alston layup, but LaGrange (19-7) scored the next five in quick succession to draw within six at the under-12 media timeout at the 11:11 mark.

Jacob Gaetanos then pulled the Panthers within three with 8:52 left, and N.C. Wesleyan twice missed the front end of one-and-one free throw opportunities within the next minute.

Drew Vanderbrook proceeded to knock down back-to-back 3-pointers from nearly the same spot in front of LaGrange’s bench, and followed that up with a steal and dunk for a 74-69 Panthers lead. LaGrange closed the game on a 35-18 run over the final 9:04.

“We had a chance to keep them at bay by making some free throws, but once we missed those, it gave them an opening,” Thompson said.

When the Bishops were at their best on Friday, they were getting out in transition and pushing the pace against a smaller and less athletic LaGrange unit.

The Panthers led by as many as 10 in the game’s opening six minutes, but N.C. Wesleyan freshman Isaiah Alston put together a personal 8-0 run to finally get the Bishops into the contest.

N.C. Wesleyan closed the first half with a flurry, outscoring LaGrange, 14-3, over the final 3:52, including an alley-oop dunk from Alston and a two-handed slam by Devontae Williams that sent Panthers coach Kendal Wallace to the visitors’ locker room with a glazed-over look in his eyes, wondering how a barrage had happened so quickly.

Just as LaGrange was streaky, so was N.C. Wesleyan.

“We got good shots in the second half, and it’s not like (LaGrange) did anything different defensively,” Moore said. “We just missed those same shots.”

In the two teams’ only regular-season meeting, a 114-98 Bishops win on Feb. 6, N.C. Wesleyan scored 65 points in the second half and made 13 3-pointers to LaGrange’s six.

Friday, though, was a bit of role reversal, as LaGrange shot 15-of-34 from 3-point range.

N.C. Wesleyan, meanwhile, went just 7-of-22 from deep and 14-of-27 from the free-throw line.

“That kid (Vanderbrook), I mean, my gosh, he was feeling it,” Thompson said. “Those shots he hit were just killers.”

Vanderbrook, a 6-foot-8 forward, scored all 19 of his points in the second half, including a 5-of-7 mark from 3.

Justyn Olson, who scored a game-high 26 for LaGrange, made 12 of 14 free throws (9-of-10 in the second half) to seal the Panthers’ berth in today’s championship game at 2 p.m. against Covenant.

Alston finished with 18 points in 25 minutes off the bench.

Brandon Brown added 14 points and eight rebounds for the Bishops.

Tears streaked down the cheeks of several Bishops veterans in the handshake line after the final buzzer and in the postgame locker room, and even Thompson was unusually downcast. The thought keeping him going:

One more game.

Foster Lander can be reached at 407-9951 or flander@rmtelegram.com