The LaGrange men's basketball team starts its bid for a third straight USA South Tournament championship Thursday at 5 p.m. against Ferrum in Everett Gymnasium on the campus of N.C. Wesleyan in Rocky Mount, N.C.
The Panthers (18-7) are the fourth seed in the tournament, while Ferrum (13-12) is the fifth seed. Ferrum won the regular season meeting 100-76 on its home court Jan. 30.
"Going into the season, we knew every team in our conference would be better than they were last year," Coach Kendal Wallace said. "This tournament will be the toughest test we have had all season. All of the eight teams are legitimate contenders for the tournament title.
"We have to focus on what we do well, and then go out and perform. Our players have overcome many obstacles this season, yet our biggest obstacle always seems to be ourselves."
Along with Ferrum, the Panthers' half of the tournament bracket includes top-seeded N.C. Wesleyan (19-6) and eighth-seeded Averett (15-10). The Panthers lost 114-98 in Mariotti Gym to N.C. Wesleyan on Feb. 6 and won 94-87 at Averett on Jan. 31.
The rest of the tournament is made up second seed Covenant (15-9), third seed Greensboro (15-10, sixth seed Piedmont (15-10), and seventh seed William Peace (11-14).
In the preseason conference coaches poll, Averett was the pick to win the regular season with N.C. Wesleyan second. Maryville, picked to finish third, finished ninth and is not playing in a post season conference tournament for the first time since 1998. Covenant was 10th in the preseason poll, while Ferrum was ninth. The Panthers were tied for fifth with Piedmont in the poll.
The Panthers enter the tournament winners of four of their past five games. They won on the road twice last week, defeating Huntingdon 97-87 in overtime and Piedmont 96-90.
Junior guard Justyn Olson received USA South Player of the Week honors after scoring a career-high 36 points against Huntingdon and 28 in the Piedmont win. Olson leads the team and is second in the conference averaging 16.5 points per game. He is averaging 19.7 points per game over the last 10 games.
Olson is one of five Panthers averaging in double figures. Senior Mark Wagner follows at 15.0 points per game, then senior Braxton Ford (11.6), sophomore Alex Bonner (11.5), and junior Drew Vanderbrook (10.6).
Olson and Wagner each rank in the top 10 in nine different USA South statistical categories. Bonner was the Panthers' leading scorer coming off the bench through 20 games. He started the final five games, averaging 15.0 points per game. Bonner leads the team in rebounding, averaging 5.4 per game.
The Panthers lead the conference in scoring, averaging 88.0 points per game. They are second with 243 steals and are averaging 22.2 points per game off opponent's turnovers.
The LaGrange-Ferrum winner meets the N.C. Wesleyan-Averett winner in the semifinals Friday at 7 p.m. The championship game is Saturday at 2 p.m. The tournament champion receives the conference's automatic NCAA Division III tournament bid.
"We have a good team and the hardest job as the coach has been keeping everyone engaged and positive. Playing as a team, taking care of the basketball, and committing to defense are all things that can be done by any one of our 16 players," Wallace noted. "It's my job to find the five best guys that are willing to do those simple things and let them go out and perform. This team is poised and experienced and our chemistry has been great the majority of the season. Let's hope that chemistry lasts through Saturday."