A special season came to a close for the LaGrange College Panthers on Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA Division III national tournament.
The Panthers had a one-point lead with less than three minutes remaining, but the home-standing Centre (Ky.) Colonels finished the game on a 10-2 run to take a 78-71 victory.
“We played hard the entire game. Our guys played remarkable defense and kept their composure for 38 minutes of the game,” LaGrange College coach Kendal Wallace said. “But some untimely turnovers broke our backs.”
Wallace also felt his team’s inability to get to the free-throw line hurt.
The Panthers were 11-of-13 from the line, while the Colonels made 19-of-22 attempts.
“It’s hard for us to play our game when we didn’t get to the bonus either half, which has not happened all season,” Wallace said. “Centre did an incredible job of keeping their composure and they are well coached.”
While Centre advances to face Emory in the second round on Saturday, LaGrange College ended its season with an 18-11 record.
The Panthers played in the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history, and they won their first-ever USA South title to earn their NCAA bid.
“I am very proud of our accomplishments this season and believe this was a great experience for all involved,” Wallace said. “Our young guys have something to build on.”
Nick Mitchell, continuing the momentum he built during the USA South tournament where he was named MVP, led the Panthers with 23 points against Centre.
Denzel Robinson and Dustin Baxter had 11 points apiece, and Mark Wagner had 10 points.
Donovan Whiteside paced Centre with 24 points, Blake Scinta scored 15 points, and Collin Lopez added 14 points.
The Panthers, who trailed 45-43 at the half, led by as many as four points in the second half, and they had their final lead with 4:09 remaining when Mitchell’s basket gave them a 69-68 lead.
After both teams misfired on a few possessions, the Colonels reclaimed the lead on a Whiteside 3-pointer with 2:31 remaining.
After falling behind by five points, the Panthers got within three with 33 seconds remaining on a Wagner basket, but the Colonels scored the game’s final four points, all on free throws.
The Panthers, one of Division III’s top-scoring teams, only had two points in the final four minutes.
Thursday’s game marked the end of the road for four LaGrange College seniors, Robinson, Baxter, Patrick Dugger and Jerod Howard.