Lexington, Ky. – Behind a dynamite scoring night from both sophomore Cooper Theobald and senior Alex Jones, the Transylvania men's basketball team won its 2016-17 season opener over the Thomas More College Saints 74-70 at the Beck Center on Wednesday night.
Jones shot 8-for-16 from the field and a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line to finish with 23 points in his final season debut for the Pioneers. His backcourt mate Cooper Theobald enjoyed a shockingly efficient scoring night, shooting 5-for-8 from the field and 15-for-19 from the foul line for a game-high 25 points.
The combined efforts of the Transylvania veterans each lined up with a skill set that matched their career strengths. Jones entered the season as the returning leading scorer for the Pioneers, while Theobald returned for his second season coming off a year in which he set a conference record for made free throws.
In what was the season opener for both squads, the first half was tight and intense in front of a boisterous crowd of 350 on hand. Jones and Theobald combined for 17 of the Pioneers' first 19 points, and junior Tristan Burgess added two free throws to push the Pioneers ahead, 21 to 17 midway through the first half.
Thomas More dropped in five 3-pointers in the first half to assert its scoring intentions, while the Pioneers went 13-for-18 at the charity stripe to keep the Saints in line. While the Saints won the rebounding battle in the first half decisively with a plus-nine margin, the Pioneers combined for 7 steals and blocks compared to just one for the Saints. With each team leaning on certain advantages, the Bluegrass neighbors fought to a 37-37 halftime deadlock.
The Pioneers opened up the second half on a 19-5 run to take a 56-42 lead at the 14:57 mark. Thomas More then responded with a 9-0 run, punctuated by a Michael Griffin jump shot. The Saints continued to chip away at the Pioneers before finally taking a 66-63 lead with 6:44 remaining in the game. Thomas More carried mostly a two-possession lead for the next two and a half minutes before Theobald shifted into high gear, scoring a free throw and a jumper consecutively to cut the Transy deficit to 74-73.
Jones and Thomas More's Ralph Stone traded scores as Thomas More took a 78-75 lead with 2:19 left in the ballgame. The next minute belonged to highly touted newcomer, sophomore forward Kyle Gullett, who struck with a layup at the 1:53 mark to slice Thomas More's lead to one. The Pioneers then forced a stop and Gullett went to work on the block, forcing up a physical shot that he hit amidst contact to draw a three-point play.
Gullett's three-point play for an 80-72 advantage gave the Pioneers a lead they would never relinquish. Theobald hit four free throws in the final minute, but Thomas More's Stone gave his team a shot with three more points registered in the final minute. Gullett was fouled with an 84-82 Transylvania lead with just six seconds remaining and split a fair of free throws to add a layer of drama and security to the final moments of the ballgame.
Trailing 85-82, the Saints came down and got off a three-point try from the left wing with no time left, but the shot careened against the rim, and the Pioneers grabbed their first victory of the season.
It was a special win for the Pioneers, who exchanged the favor to the Saints for a last-second loss by one point last December at Thomas More. It also snapped a three-game losing streak versus Thomas More as the Pioneers claimed their first win in the series since December 2012.
Gullett was the other Pioneer in double-digit scoring with 16, and added five rebounds and four of Transylvania's six blocks. Transylvania scored 22 points off of turnovers compared to 11 by the visitors, and the Pioneers won the battle at the free throw line, hitting 34-of-45 attempts, while Thomas More made 22 freebies.
The Pioneers return to action on Monday, November 21 when they visit archrival Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Tipoff between the Pioneers and Colonels is set for 7:30 p.m.
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