KANSAS CITY. Mo. — After four flicks of former Midlothian High School Panther Lance Tipton's wrist, the Lions moved within three games of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics' title game.
His pinpoint accuracy in the game's waning moments helped Southwestern Assemblies of God University advance earn an 81-75 win over Talladega College on Wednesday at the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium.
It was the first time SAGU won a first-round game since finishing second in the national tournament in 2013.
“Talladega is well-coached and made two big runs on us,” said SAGU Head Coach Donnie Bostwick. “Different players kept stepping up, starting with Lance and ending with Keyunta (Watkins). We are a group of eight's (from the story of David) that just believe God can help us do anything.”
Tipton, a freshman Lion guard, scored the Lions' first ten points. With 9:31 left in the first half, SAGU took the biggest lead of the game after Keyunta Watkins hit a pair of free throws to put his team ahead 23-11.
Despite the 12-point deficit, the run to close the first quarter and an SAGU freshman Dareny Sims' forced turnover and fastbreak lay-up score, the Tornadoes weren’t down and out by any stretch. During the final nine minutes of the half, Talladega led a 20-6 run to enter halftime with a 31-29 lead.
The way the first half unfolded, it was almost fitting the contest came down to the wire and was a one-possession game until the final 38 seconds.
The Lions' Isaak Rowe made a 3-pointer to give the Lions the one-point lead to start the second half but Talladega quickly regained control during the next four minutes of play. Rowe, however, would find space to strike again.
With 15:02 left in the game, he sank a second three to give SAGU a lead they were able to keep for the remainder of the game despite Tauren Bailey's two free throws that made it 67-65 with 2:18 left in the fourth quarter.
Sims, who grabbed the offensive rebound and scored on a putback and Tipton, who scored on a fast break, gave the Lions a six-point boost on the following two possessions.
“I just wanted to stay in my role and play freely for each other," Tipton said about believing he and his team would rally and come through with a win. "Once we got Key going, it was a wrap.”
With 38 seconds left in game, Talladega's Jordan Washington, who ranked No. 2 in the nation in scoring and averaged 24.6 points per game, scored and pulled the Tornadoes within three points and shrunk their deficit to 75-72. The SAGU defense held him to 16 points.
In the final 34 seconds, though, led by Watkins and Tipton, SAGU went five for six at the free throw line. Tipton's four perfect free throws in the final seconds — cool, calm and expert flicks of his wrist — sealed the Lion win.
Watkins, who led all scorers with 25 points, made several key buckets during the playoff game and drove fearlessly into the lane, helping draw defenders away from deadly long range shooters like Rowe and Tipton.
Though Watkins led SAGU in points, Tipton wasn't far behind with a season-high 22 points. Rowe had 12 points and Josh Williams nearly nabbed a double-double against Talladega, scoring 11 points and pulling down a team-leading nine rebounds.
“The game was a battle," Watkins said. "We kept our faith and believed that the Man above would help us fight and get through the adversity at all costs. He was there for us and we were there for each other."
The Lions will face Montana's Carroll College at 10:45 a.m. Friday, at the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium. The (28-5) Fighting Saints defeated Iowa's Mount Mercy 82-69 on Wednesday in Cramer Bracket play.