At 6-foot-4, RJ Daniels was a tall order in the lane for Xavier in its Gulf Coast Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament semifinal Saturday.
Daniels turned things with his inside play during the second half, finishing with a career-high 19 points, and the Gold Rush knocked off top seed Talladega 75-67 at Xavier’s Convocation Center.
Talladega (23-5), ranked fourth in NAIA, had won the past two GCAC tournament championships as well as winning the 2015 and ’16 regular-season titles. The Tornadoes beat the Rush in last year’s tourney final on Xavier’s home court.
“This feels great,” said Daniels, who scored 14 points in the second half on 4-of-4 shooting and 6-of-7 free-throw shooting. “We hadn’t beaten them in two years. I just played as hard as I could with the situation we faced.”
Xavier (21-11) will play Dillard in Sunday’s final, the first time the archrivals have met in the GCAC tournament final in the 35-year history of the conference. The Rush last won the tournament in 1996.
The Rush appeared to be in a tough situation with 15:31 left in the second half.
The Tornadoes were on a 21-4 run spanning the end of the first half and beginning of the second that had them in front, 35-31.
Daniels then made two free throws and a 3-point that gave Xavier the lead.
He had a putback, two free throws and a free throw-line jumper in an 8-2 spurt that gave the Rush a 50-44 lead with 7:16 left. All-GCAC guard Morris Wright then sank a 3-pointer at 6:46, and Xavier went on to build a 57-46 lead.
Talladega came to 61-55 at the three-minute mark but got no closer.
NO. 2 DILLARD 95, No. 3 PHILANDER SMITH 76: All-GCAC forward Demetric Austin had a career-high 34 points and 14 rebounds, and second-team all-conference point guard Dennis Hightower had 19 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, leading Bleu Devils to the final for the first time since 2013.
Dillard (20-10) last won the GCAC tournament in 2001.
“We’ve been treating this tournament like three individual championship games and just playing as hard as we can because being able to play for the championshp means so much for the university and for ourselves,” Austin said. “Playing against Xavier, it’s going to be a tough, close game, but we’re ready.”
Hightower hit a long 3-pointer and Austin made two free throws and a 3-pointer as Dillard ended the first half on a 10-0 run to lead 38-27 at halftime.
Austin and Hightower each scored five points during a 10-4 spurt to start the second half that pushed the lead to 48-31.
NO. 3 XAVIER 73, NO. 2 EDWARD WATERS 55: The Gold Nuggets (21-11) took control early in returning to the championship game for the sixth time in seven years.
Xavier will play top seed Talladega at 2 p.m. Talladega won both regular-season meetings, each by seven points.
“They are a very well-balanced team,” Xavier coach Bo Browder said. “Our intensity will have to be very high, and the play of our bench will have to match that of their bench.”
In sprinting to a 39-18 halftime lead, the Gold Nuggets shot 51.6 percent (16-of-31), forced 11 turnovers and held the Tigers (21-9) to 7-of-27 shooting, including 0-of-10 on 3-point attempts.
Xavier, presssing from the tipoff, scored 14 of the first 16 points during a 19-4 run in which it made seven of its first nine shots, including 2-of-3 on 3-point tries, and all three free throws.
NO. 1 TALLADEGA 73, NO. 5 SUNO 65: Point guard Shakeena Benton scored a game-high 22 points, including a contested 3-pointer with 55.7 seconds left that sent the Tornadoes (23-4) on a game-sealing 9-1 run.
SUNO (12-13) trailed 58-43 when the fourth quarter began but battled back behind forward Londyn Thomas and guard Rayvin Miller to pull to 66-64 with 1:40 remaining.