Lexington, Ky. – The Transylvania men's basketball team claimed its first Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference regular-season championship in eight years on Saturday night, defeating the Bluffton University Beavers 73-64 at the Beck Center in the 2020 regular-season finale.
The Pioneers finished off HCAC regular-season play with a 13-5 record to clinch a share of first place with Franklin College, which also completed its season on Saturday with a 13-5 overall record.
With Transy and Franklin splitting the regular-season series and each team winning its home matchup against the other, the Pioneers earned the No. 1 seed via a secondary tiebreaker and will host the upcoming HCAC Tournament from the Beck Center next weekend.
Transylvania completed its overall regular-season run on Saturday with a record of 17-8, winning 10 of its final 11 games to close out the season. The Pioneers won their final three contests of the regular season with Saturday's championship-sealing win.
Gabe Schmitt celebrated his senior day with a game-high 22 points on 6 for 13 shooting from the field and a perfect 8 for 8 performance from the charity stripe.
Michael Jefferson finished off his indelible junior regular season with 20 points, four rebounds, three assists, one block, and one steal, hitting 3 of 5 treys and 6 of 11 shots from the floor.
Saturday's matchup between the Pioneers and Bluffton contained all the elements and intensity of a game with critical late-season implications.
The Beavers entered the day with the possibility of capturing a three-way regular-season championship and conference tournament hosting rights in the HCAC with a win and a potential loss by Franklin, having beaten Transylvania in their first meeting of the season in Bluffton, Ohio on January 4 by an 87-78 tally.
The sequel's first half had a heavyweight-championship feel as the Beavers battered the Pioneers to a 17-7 lead. The Pioneers didn't stay down for long as Will Sivills came off the bench with a momentum-shifting triple and another senior in Spencer McKinney followed with a long-distance basket to spur a 12-0 response.
Sivills struck again with a long-range dagger and Schmitt finished off the run with his own threeball for a 19-17 Transy lead with 9:17 to go.
Bluffton later captured a six-point lead but the Pioneers eviscerated it quickly over the final two minutes of the half. Schmitt scored on back-to-back possessions to send the teams into halftime tied at 33-all.
The Pioneers executed with precision and hunger in the second half, turning the ball over only three times while hounding the Beavs into 10 second-half giveaways and 16 on the night in total.
Bluffton never fully went away but each of their salvos was met with a clutch basket by the Pioneers time and time again. When Bluftton's Jameel Cosby nailed a 3-pointer to bring the Beavers within one of Transy at 52-51 at the 8:12 mark of the second half, Zach Larimore answered on the following possession with a triple to raise the Pioneer advantage back to four points.
Larimore again warded off the Beavers with a layup at the 6:05 mark to give the Pioneers a 59-55 cushion. McKinney created further distance with a 3-pointer on the next possession for a 62-55 lead. Larimore and Schmitt put the Pioneers in winning position with a pair of jumpers to hand Transylvania a 67-57 lead with 3:31 remaining in regulation. Bluffton would never get closer than seven points the rest of the night and the Pioneers celebrated their senior day in a most memorable fashion.
Larimore finished with 11 points, three rebounds, and one assist off the bench, hitting 3 of 5 shots from behind the arc.
Transylvania only shot 39 percent from the field but nailed 41 percent of its three-point attempts and wasted little at the foul line with a 17 for 20 showing from the charity stripe. McKinney finished with eight points, six rebounds, three assists, three steals, and one block as he helped will the Pioneers to their first HCAC championship in his four years with the program.
Connor Hoskins was the other senior honored on Saturday for the Pioneers for his contributions and role with the team.
The Pioneers will now host the upcoming six-team HCAC Tournament which begins next Friday, February 28 through Sunday, March 1 at the Beck Center. The Pioneers will host all five games in the tournament and will have a first-round bye in Friday's HCAC quarterfinal contests. Transylvania will play the winner of Friday's No. 4 vs. No. 5 seed game on Saturday, February 29 at a time to be determined.
Transylvania is aiming for its first NCAA Tournament berth since the 2013 season and first conference tournament title since 2012.
Sunday's tournament championship winner will earn the conference's automatic bid into the NCAA Division III Men's Basketball Tournament.
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