ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. -- The Covenant men's basketball team made history on Saturday afternoon by claiming the USA South Tournament championship with a thrilling 101-92 overtime victory over LaGrange inside Everett Gym.
Covenant (18-9) earns the conference's automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament, which starts next week. The Scots will be making their first trip to the NCAAs and first national tournament appearance since 1987. Additionally, the conference tournament title is the first on record in program history and the first conference title of any kind (regular season or postseason) since 1964.
"It was an incredible weekend in North Carolina," head coach Kyle Taylor said. "We've talked all year about being relentless and today we showed that winning in overtime."
TJ Cox scored 21 points with eight assists and was named Tournament MVP after averaging 16.7 points in three contests. Berto Dryden scored 22 points with five rebounds and four assists. Bailey Spragg added 14 points, Patjo Twagirayezu 12 and Connor Sears 10 as all five Scots starters reached double figure scoring. Sears collected eight rebounds.
Joining Cox on the All-Tournament team was Spragg and Dryden.
"I'm proud of this team and how we fought through adversity this year," Cox said. "I just want to thank God and Covenant for this opportunity."
"I'm so proud of this team," Dryden added. "We have a great team bond and showed it today. There is nobody else I'd rather do this with."
Covenant struggled in the opening minutes of the game as LaGrange (20-8) opened an early 12-5 lead. The Scots settled in after that and the game went back-and-forth for much of the first half. Down 34-32 with under three minutes left in the period, Covenant went on a 14-2 run to end the half and take a 46-34 lead. Cox and Dryden buried 3-pointers and Sears capped the run with a jumper in the final seconds giving Covenant a 12-point edge.
The run continued into the second half as the Scots scored the first eight points, finished off by a Cox steal and layup with 18:13 left and a 54-36 lead for Covenant.
LaGrange, the two-time defending conference tournament champion, would not go down easily. The Panthers methodically chipped away at the Covenant lead and got within one possession at 81-79 after a Mark Wagner 3-pointer with 31 seconds left. Covenant made just 2-of-4 free throws in the final 30 seconds leaving the door open for the Panthers who capitalized when Justyn Olson made a driving layup with 3.3 seconds left tying the score at 83. Cox managed to get off a 35-foot 3-point attempt as time expired, but the shot hit the front of the rim and rolled off sending the game into overtime.
LaGrange struck first in the extra session before Covenant went on a 7-2 run, capped by consecutive layups from Z Arima and Twagirayezu, giving the Scots a 90-88 lead with 2:03 left. On Covenant's next possession, Twagirayezu converted a three-point play that put Covenant up 93-88 with 1:31 remaining. LaGrange could not answer and Covenant made 5-of-6 free throws in the final 40 seconds to secure the win and the title.
Wagner scored 26 points to lead LaGrange and Alex Bonner added 22. The Panthers were held to 34.5 percent (30-of-87) shooting from the field.
Covenant connected in 44.1 percent (30-of-68) with 10 3-pointers and was 31-of-44 from the free throw line. Arima had nine points off the bench and Daniel Garrett tallied five points and eight rebounds.
Covenant will find out its first round opponent and destination on Monday with the NCAA Selection Show at 12:30 p.m. First and second round games are scheduled from March 3-5.
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