The third time was the charm.
When the LaGrange College Panthers took the court against Huntingdon Saturday afternoon, it was the third time senior Denzel Robinson had appeared in a conference championship game.
The first two times Robinson and the Panthers fell short.
In the 2010-2011 season, LaGrange College lost to Huntingdon 77-72 in the Great South Athletic Conference title game.
The following year, LaGrange College was once again in the GSAC championship game, and this time it lost to Maryville 75-73.
On Saturday, Robinson and the Panthers were back in a conference championship game, and this time the stakes were higher than ever.
Unlike the previous two championship-game appearances, this time the Panthers had a chance to earn an invitation to the NCAA Division III national tournament with a win.
“My first year, we lost in the last game to the same team,” Robinson said. “It meant more to me than anything to come back my last year knowing that I wouldn’t have another chance to do it.”
Huntingdon and LaGrange College are both now members of the USA South conference, and they’d each won two tournament games to reach Saturday’s championship game.
The Panthers were down by double digits early in the second half, but they eventually caught and soared past the Hawks on the way to a 94-84 victory.
Robinson had his championship, and now he’s getting a chance to play on the biggest stage in Division III basketball.
LaGrange College will visit Centre (Ky.) on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Robinson said after the bracket was revealed on Monday. “I’m still trying to take it in. It’s a crazy feeling. It’s like being in a dream.”
Robinson, who played his high-school ball at Kendrick High School in Columbus, has been a standout player for the Panthers since his freshman season when he made the GSAC all-freshman team.
After his freshman season, Warren Haynes decided to step down as the Panthers’ head coach, and a search for his replacement got under way.
The job eventually went to Kendal Wallace, and he gives Robinson credit for helping him land the position.
“He actually helped me get the job by telling them that he wanted me to come coach him,” said Wallace, who was an assistant coach at Maryville during Robinson’s freshman season. “He and I have been a special pair since Day 1. And I can’t say enough good things about him.”
In Wallace’s first season, Robinson started 26 of the team’s 27 games, and he averaged 10 points per game and he was named the team’s top defensive player, an award he has won three times.
As a junior, Robinson averaged eight points per game, and he was once again an elite defensive player, and he led the team with 44 steals.
Robinson’s senior season has been his best one from a scoring standpoint.
He’s third on the team with an average of 13.6 points per game, and he was a standout performer in the conference tournament.
In the championship game, Robinson scored 19 points and was 6-of-10 from the field.
He also had five assists and seven steals.
Robinson had 10 points in a semifinal victory over Greensboro, and he tied for team-high honors with 17 points in a first-round win over North Carolina-Wesleyan.
Against Huntingdon, LaGrange College was facing a team it had lost two twice during the regular season.
“We knew we weren’t going to let this team beat us three times,” Robinson said. “We told ourselves we were going to do what coach told us, and make sure it went our way.”
Even when the Panthers trailed by 10 at the half, Robinson said no one was worried.
“Being down 10, it’s not a big thing for us,” Robinson said. “We knew there were two halves to be played.”
The Panthers dominated the second half, thanks in no small part to Robinson.
Robinson played all 20 minutes in the second half, and he had 11 points and six steals.
Now, Robinson and the Panthers will try to keep their season going for at least one more game.
Robinson said it’s “a great honor” to represent the school in the NCAA tournament, and he’s hopeful the team can travel to Kentucky and add another special moment to what has already been a memorable season.
“We want to let people know who LaGrange is,” Robinson said.