HICKORY, N.C. -- Junior forward Celestra Warren poured in a game-high 21 points while freshman guard Jasmine Kearse tallied 20 to lead Limestone (25-5) past defending Southeast Region champion Clayton State (22-7) by a final of 75-65 on Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Division II tournament.
Warren neared a double-double by also finishing with nine rebounds. Junior forward Alicia Brookins made a run at a triple-double, posting nine points, 10 boards and six steals, while juniors Ayshia McNeil and Precilla Hill chipped in 12 and 11 points, respectively.
The win avenges an 87-65 loss to Clayton State in the 2013 NCAA Southeast Regional championship game.
Limestone advances to face conference rival Belmont Abbey College in the second round at 4 p.m. Saturday. The sixth-seeded Crusaders upset No. 3 seed Wingate 93-86 in the early game. The Abbey swept the season series from Limestone.
Looking up at 47-41 deficit with 13:11 remaining in the game, a pair of long-range strikes by Kearse bookended a 12-2 stretch to put Limestone in front for good, 52-49, with under 10 to play. McNeil also drilled a triple during the decisive run while Warren added a contested layup.
Shacamra Jackson kept the Lakers close, making it a one possession game with a jumper in the lane at the 7:50 mark, but the Saints started to pull away after 3-pointers by Warren and McNeil opened up a 62-55 lead just two minutes later.
Clayton State closed the gap to 64-60 on a 3-pointer by Kayla Pryce, but an old-fashion three-point play by McNeil again made it a seven-point contest. Limestone would then go 5 of 7 from the free-throw line and held CSU to a 1-for-8 clip from the field in the final stretch to secure the 75-65 win.
A 3-pointer by Warren gave the Saints a narrow 8-7 lead with 15:38 remaining in the opening half, but the Lakers responded with eight unanswered points on treys by Tiayra Green and Bena Hanyard to pull ahead 15-8.
Three consecutive buckets by Hill and a pair of fast break scores from Brookins keyed a 13-1 spurt in the next 3:13 to stake the Blue and Gold to a 21-16 advantage midway through the half.
The Lakers jumped back in front following a pair of inside scores by Andrea Benford, but a nice lefthand finish by Warren and driving layup from Kearse put Limestone on top 28-24 with under five minutes left in the period.
A layup by Warren with three ticks left in the first half gave Limestone a 32-29 lead at the break. That margin would remain the same early in the second half following a tip-in off the offensive glass by Kearse.
Back-to-back layups by Jackson then sparked a 12-3 run in the next 2:16 as the Lakers grabbed their largest lead of the day at 47-41. She tallied a total of seven points during that span after finishing off a traditional three-point play.
Despite the size disadvantage, the Saints finished with a 47-40 margin on the glass and a 30-20 advantage in paint production. Limestone forced 18 turnovers for a 28-20 showing in points going the other way.
Hanyard led the Lakers with 15 points while Jackson tallied 13 points and eight boards. Tweety Hawkins finished with 10 points.