GREENWOOD – Lander senior guard Mylea McKenith scored 25 points including two crucial late free throws as the No. 24-ranked Bearcats built a 22-point lead in the first half and held off No. 6 Wingate 81-76 Tuesday night at Horne Arena.
The Bearcats earned their second win over a ranked team, improving to 3-1 on the season. Wingate is also 3-1.
“That team came in tonight and they were not going to roll over,” said head coach Kevin Pederson. “We got them rattled early and our kids fought hard. I’d like to know what this team is going to be capable of when we start firing on all cylinders.”
Wingate is the third 2017 NCAA Tournament participant the Bearcats have faced through four games this season.
Lander forced 23 turnovers in the first half, building a 39-17 lead just before halftime. The Bulldogs closed within three points several times late in the fourth quarter as they took better care of the ball in the second half with just six turnovers. But McKenith’s two free throws with 14 seconds left gave the Bearcats some breathing room.
McKenith had an outstanding shooting night, making eight of 10 from the floor and all eight at the line as she scored 17 of her 25 in the second half.
Destinee Langford added 14 points in 19 minutes of action for Lander, while Christal Williams scored 11 points and led the team with four steals and four assists. Breshay Johnson added 10 points but only three after the first quarter.
Chelsea Mitchell paced the Bearcats with five rebounds including a crucial defensive board in the final seconds.
Caroline Averette paced Wingate with 15 points, Courtney Robinson added 13 points and five assists, Marta Miscenko was held well under her scoring average with 12 points, and Danasia Witherspoon contributed 10 points and a game-high seven rebounds. Miscenko, a 6-foot-4 junior from Latvia who transferred from Texas-El Paso, added six rebounds and four blocked shots.
Langford swished a jumper in the paint for Lander’s final basket of the first quarter, staking the hosts to a 19-11 lead while also starting an 11-0 run.
Lea Petit opened the second period with a turnaround jumper, Jessica Harris converted a fast-break layup, then Harris added a steal and another layup on a 4-2 break. Langford finished the run by intercepting a pass and taking it in for a layup, was fouled and completed a three-point play for a 28-11 Lander advantage with eight minutes left in the opening half.
The Bearcats took their first 20-point lead of the game when Johnson converted a three-point play, her final points of the game, making it 33-13 with 5:10 until halftime. Lander’s biggest lead was 22 points, 39-17, on McKenith’s two free throws at the two-minute mark.
The Bearcats led 41-25 at the break, with Johnson (10) and McKenith (8) scoring a combined 18 points. Lander shot 50 percent from the floor in the opening half (16 of 32) while holding Wingate to 38 percent (nine of 24) shooting while forcing 23 turnovers.
Witherspoon made two free throws, pulling the Bulldogs within 41-31 with 8:16 left in the third quarter. Averette’s layup closed Wingate within single digits for the first time since the start of the second quarter, making it 46-37 with 5:27 to go.
Averette’s 3-pointer from the top of the key cut the Bulldog deficit to 53-47 with 2:30 left in the third. But McKenith answered with a 3 in front of Lander’s bench and then added two free throws for a 58-47 Bearcat advantage at the 1:35 mark.
Langford was fouled with one second left in the third quarter and made both free throws, giving Lander a 62-49 lead going into the final period.
Langford grabbed a defensive rebound and went the length of the floor for a layup, giving the Bearcats a 68-55 advantage with 7:24 left in the fourth quarter.
Miscenko converted a three-point play and Wingate was back within single digits again at 68-60 with 5:16 to go. Taziya Moody’s 3 pulled the Bulldogs within 70-65 with 3:30 left.
After Robinson made a driving layup to cut Wingate’s deficit to 70-67, the Bearcats got a big response when Williams hit a 3 from the left side for a 73-67 advantage with 2:16 to go.
Witherspoon made a jump shot to pull the Bulldogs within four then teammate Zasha Barrett got a steal but Wingate could not convert.
McKenith nailed a jumper just inside the arc giving Lander a 75-69 lead with 51 seconds to go. But Miscenko grabbed an offensive rebound, made a layup, was fouled and converted a three-point play pulling Wingate within 75-72 at the 21-second mark.
The Bearcats turned the ball over, giving Wingate a chance to tie. Miscenko was fouled immediately after the timeout and made one of two free throws, making it 75-73 with 16 seconds left.
McKenith was fouled off the inbounds pass and had to be fouled again to put Lander into the bonus. McKenith calmly hit both free throws, extending the Bearcat lead to 77-73 with 14 seconds to go.
Averette missed a 3-point shot attempt with McKenith’s hand in her face, Mitchell grabbed the defensive rebound, dribbled about four seconds off the clock before being fouled. Mitchell made both free throws to make it 79-73.
But Wingate was not done. Robinson hit a 3-pointer in front of the visiting bench, pulling the Bulldogs within 79-76 with three seconds to go. However, McKenith added a clinching layup with one second left.