NCAA Tournament: Lander women's basketball rallies to upset top seed

Lander's Symone Starks
Lander's Symone Starks

ANDERSON, S.C. – The Lander women's basketball team forced three turnovers in the final 22 seconds and took the lead for good on Miriam Recarte's three free throws with 18 seconds left to beat top seed Anderson University 64-61 in the NCAA Southeast Regional semifinals at the Abney Athletic Center, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2012.

Fifth-seeded Lander improved to 24-8 and will face Peach Belt Conference rival North Georgia Monday night for the Southeast Regional championship at the Abney Athletic Center at Anderson University.

The Trojans saw their 28-game winning streak snapped and ended their season at 30-3.

Lander and North Georgia split two PBC games this season.

Recarte's three free throws gave the Bearcats a 63-61 lead and Jessica Harris added a free throw with seven seconds to go.

Symone Starks paced Lander with 16 points while Mylea McKenith scored 12 of her 14 points in the second half. McKenith also drew a big offensive foul in the final seconds.

Harris was scoreless in the first three quarters and was held to four points and six rebounds but made the important free throw for the Bearcats.

"We were playing hard but they weren't playing with the fire that we are used to," Lander head coach Kevin Pederson said of his team, which trailed 50-43 going into the final quarter.

"Give Mylea McKenith and Jessica Harris credit. Those two kids struggled in the first half. And they wanted the ball. This is a team that has struggled in close games and they picked the right time to get two wins in two close games."

Lander opened the Southeast Regional with an 82-79 victory over Carson-Newman Friday night, avenging a loss from earlier this season. The Bearcats also avenged an earlier loss to Anderson.

"It's hard to even think about playing North Georgia right now," Pederson said of the Regional championship game. "They've got a great team. I'm hoping we can do better. They've run through the field so far. They have just dominated everybody and we've had to go blood, sweat and tears and everything we've got just to get to Monday.

"They are going to be the favorites. They won the (Peach Belt) regular season title and won the conference tournament back-to-back years. We know we are the underdogs going in."

Amiaya Melvins added 11 points for Lander Saturday while Miriam Recarte contributed eight points, six rebounds and two blocked shots. Sarah Crews led the Bearcats with four assists.

Alexy Mollenhauer paced the Trojans with a double-double, scoring 16 points and grabbing 10 boards. Madison Baggett added 14 points, Ace Easter 13 points, and Erika Martin 10 points.

There were five ties and five lead changes in the first quarter, which ended at 16-all.

The Trojans scored the final three points of the opening period and the first 12 of the second for a 28-16 advantage.

Ariana Sanders hit a left baseline jumper to end Anderson's 15-0 run, giving Lander its first points in almost seven minutes.

Sanders scored again while Starks made a pair of layups off passes from Crews to complete an 8-0 run, bringing the Bearcats within 28-24 with 3:47 left.

Starks made a driving layup in the final seconds to pull Lander within 32-28 at halftime.

McKenith and Harris combined for just two points in the first half for the Bearcats.

Easter's 15-foot jumper gave the Trojans a 39-30 lead with 7:35 left in the third. But McKenith's driving layup pulled Lander within 41-36 with 4:29 to go.

Martin's basket in the lane was Anderson's first field goal in five minutes, extending the lead to 43-36.

The Bearcats were only one of 16 from three-point range until Crews hit a trey from the right side to pull them within 48-43 with 26 seconds left. Lander trailed 50-43 going into the final quarter.

Harris's first points of the game came with 9:16 left in the fourth period when her two free throws cut the Bearcat deficit to 50-45.

Harris grabbed a defensive rebound and threw a long pass to McKenith, who converted the fast-break layup to cut it to 52-49 with 7:45 to go. A free throw by Harris and reverse layup by Starks tied it at 52 at the seven-minute mark.

McKenith's layup with 6:29 left gave Lander its first lead since the opening quarter at 54-52.

After the Trojans tied it, Melvins made a reverse layup off an inbounds pass and then Starks collected a back-court steal and also converted a reverse layup to give the Bearcats a 58-54 lead with 5:35 to go.

Lander was outscoring the Trojans 15-4 in the fourth quarter until Mollenhauer's three pulled Anderson within 58-57 with 5:15 left.

Starks grabbed a defensive rebound and drove the length of the floor for a layup to give the Bearcats a 60-57 advantage with 3:49 to go.

Baggett's three with 2:40 left tied the game at 60.

Starks fouled out with 1:17 left and Martin made one of two free throws to give Anderson a 61-60 lead.

McKenith's long three-point attempt hit the front of the rim with 50 seconds to go. But the Trojans were called for traveling, giving Lander possession with 22 seconds left.

Recarte inbounded the ball at half-court, passed to Harris and got the ball back, missed a three-point attempt from the left corner but was fouled. Recarte made all three free throws, giving the Bearcats a 63-61 lead with 18 seconds to go.

McKenith drew a charge from Mollenhauer with eight seconds left, giving possession back to Lander. Harris drew a foul and made one of two free throws for a 64-61 lead with seven seconds to go.

Easter drove inside for Anderson but threw the ball away as she attempted to get it back outside the arc where the Trojans hoped to attempt a game-tying three, leaving one-tenth of a second left. Melvins inbounded the ball successfully and the Bearcats celebrated.