ROME, Ga. - Jake Mitchell's back-to-back 3-pointers with less than seven minutes left broke open a razor-thin game, and Faulkner rode the emotional surge all the way to the finish line, racing away from 15th-ranked Lee 68-54 here Thursday night in the quarterfinal round of the Southern States Athletic Conference tournament at the Huffman Athletic Center.
The Eagles (17-12), winners of their last five games, move into the semfinals against No. 2 Shorter Friday night at 7 at The Forum. A second Faulkner upset would not only result in a finals berth but would send the Eagles to the NAIA national tournament in Kansas City. The SSAC's two automatic bids go to the teams in the tournamen finals.
"I just really don't know what to say, seriously, it's just hard to talk right now," said Faulkner head coach Jim Sanderson, fighting back tears of pride in his team, which was a loss away from never making the conference tournament the last two weeks of the regular season. "This team has been very blessed, and to be honest I'm just so happy to be a part of it."
For Mitchell, a sophomore from Florence, his two daggers resulted in just six of his 14 second-half points. He made six of his eight shot attempts in the game. three coming from behind the arc. The Eagles' streak, he says, is a result of believing in team before self.
"About a month ago we really came together," Mitchell said. "Coach Sanderson challenged us to not leave anything in the locker room, to take every ounce of effort to the floor. We believed good things would start happening, and they have. This was a very fun game to play in tonight."
Although Faulkner led most of the way, Lee (20-8) trailed by no more than four points in the first 33 minutes before the Eagles caught fire. Faulkner hit six straight shots during one stretch, and the Flames couldn't recover, never seriously threatening the rest of the way. The Eagles scored the game's last eight points, and Lee head coach Tommy Brown instructed his team to not foul in the final 1:30.
Faulkner shot 56 percent in the second half, making four of its five 3-point tries after intermission after missing 10 of its 12 first-half attempts. Lee was ice-cold from long range, hitting just four of 23 from the arc. The Flames ended the game hitting 37 percent from the field, while the Eagles were 10 percent higher at 47. Faulkner also protected the basketball well, committing just 13 turnovers while forcing Lee into 16.
Chris Palmore, who brought the crowd to it's feet with an alley-oop slam dunk off a feed from Mitchell in the closing minute, finished with 19 points and nine rebounds, both game highs. Steve Bennett was the only Lee player in double figures with 14 points.
"We've had teams at Faulkner with a lot better records than 17-12, but I'm not sure I've ever been prouder of a group for showing the type resolve this group has shown," Sanderson said. "They believed when perhaps not many people did that they could still do some special things. We saw that tonight. Now we face an incredibly-tough challenge against one of the best teams in the country. And I know this - my guys will fight and battle, and give it everything they've got."
Faulkner traveled to Rome back in November to face then-undefeated Shorter and led into the second half before falling 64-58. On the same trip the Eagles visited Cleveland, Tenn., to take on Lee, which ran away from Faulkner 68-52. It took three and a half months, but the memory of that tough loss has now been erased, according to Mitchell.
"Winning this game in the tournament against them after they got us pretty good makes this more special, no doubt," he said. "Now we get the opportunity to keep playing. And we're all excited about that."
Neither team shot the ball well in the opening 20 minutes, with the majority of the shots coming from behind the arc. Lee made only three of 14 attempts, while Faulkner connected on only two of 12. The lead went back and forth, with a Palmore 3-point play sparking a late run that handed the Eagles a 30-27 advantage at the break.