March 6, 2009

Courtesy Averett Athletics

DANVILLE, Ky. — Averett's double-digit lead evaporated down the stretch, but the Cougars managed to hang on for a 76-71 victory over No. 15 Centre College in the first round of the Division III NCAA Tournament on Friday.

"We knew they weren't going to give up," Averett senior Damien Brown said. "It was going to be a fight until that final buzzer.

"We just grinded it out until the end and I'm proud of us."

Averett (21-8) opened the second half with a Kenny Hart 3-pointer to extend its lead to 38-22, but Centre (23-5) crept back into the game with open layups and 3-pointers. By the 11:24 mark, the Colonels had pulled to within four.

The Cougars held Centre at bay temporarily until the momentum, with the help of the Colonels' home crowd, swung into Centre's favor. The Colonels took their first lead of the game with 2:24 remaining when T.C. Thomason's layup in transition gave Centre a 65-64 advantage.

At the other end, Brown hit his first of two free throws to tie the game at 65-65. His second attempt was no good, but junior Jeff Wehling came up with the rebound. After an Averett timeout, Hart drained a 3-pointer with 1:58 to play to put the Cougars back in front by three.

"The biggest play of the game was the missed free throw, where we got the offensive rebound," Averett coach Jimmy Allen said. "After we called timeout, we made a 3 to give us the lead and I thought that put a little bit of wind in our sails at that point."
 
Centre, the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference champions, got within one point twice in the final two minutes and had several opportunities to take the lead. Down 70-69, Centre's Ryan Crowdis drove into the lane, but was called for a charge with 20 seconds left. It proved to be a monumental stop for the Cougars.

Averett hit its final six free throws in the last 18 seconds, including a pair by senior Justin Parker that sealed the game with 0.5 seconds on the clock.

"Whenever we put Averett in a really tough situation, they would respond," Centre coach Greg Mason said.

The Cougars advance to play the winner of Friday's late game between Guilford College and Transylvania University at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Centre's Alumni Gymnasium.

"It feels awesome," said Brown, who finished with 15 points and eight rebounds.

The win is Averett's first in three straight NCAA appearances under Allen. And it's the first NCAA tournament victory for the school since 1990, when the Cougars advanced to the Sweet 16.

Averett started strong on both sides of the ball and quietly bolted out to a 14-3 lead with 12:03 to play in the first half, forcing Centre to take a timeout. The Cougars extended that lead to 31-15 on a pair of Kenny Hart free throws with 4:43 remaining in the half.

"I thought that getting off to the start that we did was probably the key to the basketball game coming into an environment like this," Allen said. "We got some confidence and got to playing the way we wanted to play basketball tonight."

In addition to trimming Averett's lead to 35-22 by halftime, the Colonels got several Cougars in foul trouble late in the first half.

"The first half was as good of basketball as we've faced since Woucester three years ago and quickness that we've never gone against," Mason said. "I have immense pride in our guys to come back like that when the first half did not look very good at all."

Averett senior Jonathan Rumley led the Cougars with 20 points and seven rebounds. Parker and Hart added 12 points.

Thomason had a game-high 21 points for Centre, which also got 20 points from Danny Noll.