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Centre men’s basketball headed for SAA championship

The Centre College men have returned to the championship game of their conference tournament, but it has not been an easy road.

Centre will play for the Southern Athletic Association tournament title for the first time in five years after fighting off Oglethorpe for a 75-72 victory in the semifinal round Saturday at Alumni Gymnasium.

The top-seeded Colonels, who played in nine consecutive conference tournament finals from 2006-14, will face No. 3 seed Sewanee at 3 p.m. Sunday in the title game as they try to win the SAA tourney and earn the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014.

Centre, which was a first-round upset victim when it hosted this tournament a year ago, outlasted Rhodes in the first round Friday for a 75-66 victory, then was taken to the wire by Oglethorpe, which the Colonels had beaten by 23 and 21 points in two regular-season meetings.

“Yesterday was not easy, and if you had told me before the game started today this was the way the game was going to go, I’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s about right,” Centre coach Greg Mason said. “But we stepped up, and I’m just very, very pleased for our guys.”

Even so, the top-seeded Colonels are right where they want to be – playing for the title in their own gym, where they are 12-0 this season.

“It really means a lot to us, especially for Jarod (Griffin) and I as seniors, because we’ve never been in this position, but the fact that we just got here isn’t enough,” guard Tucker Sine said.

“Hopefully we can go out tomorrow and play better than we did today, keep improving on our game and get a win here at home,” forward Jacob Bates said.

Bates led Centre (22-4) for the second straight game with 21 points and 13 rebounds. He scored a game-high 23 points Friday against Rhodes.

Sine went 4-for-4 from 3-point range in the first half and finished with 19 points and seven rebounds, and Perry Ayers had 12 points in the second half and 18 in all.

Oglethorpe (14-12) led by as many as six points in the first half and took a 43-38 lead to the locker room when Lane Foster sank a 55-foot shot at the buzzer. The fourth-seeded Stormy Petrels survived an 11-1 run by the Colonels at the start of the second half, regrouping to tie the game at 49-all and leading 60-57 with 7:36 to play.

The Colonels went in front to stay during a 7-0 run that put them up 66-62 with 5:36 to play, and a 3-point basket by Perry Ayers – their last field goal of the game – gave them a 71-66 lead with 3:44 remaining.

The Petrels pulled within one point twice in the last two minutes but also missed three of five free throws in the final 35 seconds. Ayres and Dawson Crump hit two each for Centre, with Crump’s giving the Colonels a 75-72 lead with 2.3 seconds left.

Oglethorpe’s Ryan Jenei missed a 3-point shot that would have tied the game, and Sine secured the rebound for Centre.

“What a great basketball game. Anybody who was here and didn’t have a good time, basketball’s not their sport,” Mason said. “The game kept on going back and forth, back and forth. If you’re a fan, come out tomorrow.”

Sewanee (21-6) split two regular-season games with Centre, with each team winning at home. The Colonels won 80-71 on Dec. 1; the Tigers won 77-67 on Feb. 16 in the regular-season finale.

Friday’s Game

CENTRE 75, RHODES 66

RHODES (5-21)

Daniel Darst 6-9 0-0 14, Preston Giroux 5-8 2-2 12, Bryce Berry 6-1 2-3 15, Mac James 0-3 0-0 0, Mitch Weatherford 6-15 0-0 15, Tyler Guest 1-6 0-0 2, Kevin Shen 0-0 0-0 0, Jake Nestlehutt 3-11 0-0 8, Nick De Feria 0-0 0-0 0, Vaughn Samson 0-1 0-0 0, Owen Galvin 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-64 4-5 66.

CENTRE (22-4)

Art Walker 3-7 0-0 9, Jacob Bates 10-14 3-6 23, Bailey Rakes 4-7 0-0 9, Tucker Sine 3-5 2-2 9, Perry Ayers 3-14 5-6 12, Dawson Crump 0-6 0-0 0, Jarod Griffin 0-3 0-0 0, Jakob Spitzer 4-5 2-2 10, K.C. Purvis 1-1 1-2 3, Dustin Gerald 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-62 13-18 75.

Halftime–Centre 42-34. 3-Point Goals–Rhodes 8-19 (Darst 2-3, Berry 1-3, James 0-1, Weatherford 3-5, Guest 0-1, Nestlehutt 2-6), Centre 6-21 (Walker 3-6, Bates 0-1, Rakes 1-3, Sine 1-3, Ayers 1-3, Crump 0-3, Griffin 0-2). Fouled Out–Darst. Assists–Rhodes 13 (Darst 5), Centre 12 (Ayers, Crump 3). Rebounds–Rhodes 32 (Darst 8), Centre 42 (Ayers 9). Total Fouls–Rhodes 16, Centre 11.

Saturday’s Game

CENTRE 75, OGLETHORPE 72

OGLETHORPE (14-12)

Will Perry 7-15 1-6 15, Tom Inungu 7-2 4-4 18, Lane Foster 5-11 3-4 14, Carlos Sone 4-10 0-0 12, Ryan Jenei 3-10 3-5 11, Zach Breathwaite 1-4 0-1 2, Will Springer 0-0 0-0 0, Tre’ Rice 0- 0-0 0, Toju Etiwe 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-63 11-20 72.

CENTRE (22-4)

Art Walker 2-7 2-2 7, Jacob Bates 8-5 5-8 21, Bailey Rakes 2-5 0-0 4, Tucker Sine 6-9 3-4 19, Perry Ayers 6-12 5-6 18, Dawson Crump 0-4 2-2 2, Jarod Griffin 0-2 2-2 2, Jakob Spitzer 1-1 0-0 2, K.C. Purvis 0-2 0-0 0, Dustin Gerald 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-57 19-24 75.

Halftime–Oglethorpe 43-38. 3-Point Goals–Oglethorpe 7-23 (Perry 0-6, Foster 1-3, Sone 4-6, Jenei 2-6, Breathwaite 0-1), Centre 6-21 (Walker 1-5, Bates 0-2, Rakes 0-1, Sine 4-6, Ayers 1-3, Crump 0-2, Griffin 0-2). Fouled Out–Inungu. Assists–Oglethorpe 5 (Foster 4), Centre 10 (Rakes 3). Rebounds–Oglethorpe 37 (Perry, Inungu 7), Centre 40 (Bates 13). Total Fouls–Oglethorpe 18, Centre 15.