Ryan Smith couldn’t help but feel nostalgic. After years of seeing the Lions go home early in postseason tournaments, the Covenant coach thought about all the steps his program had to take to finally pick up a program-defining win.
Two late free throws from Terry Hines delivered the historic victory Thursday when Covenant went on the road and defeated Lancaster Christian 56-54 in the opening round of the TNCAA tournament.
“It was validation on the years we’ve been doing it the right way,” said Smith, who has been with the program since 2008. “It was a win which showed the mentality and culture we’ve built. I’m happy for the team and happy for the people who have set us on this course.”
For years, the Lions have come up just short in the postseason, first in the Middle Tennessee Athletic Conference and – for the last few years – the TNCAA.
Finally getting over the hump brought tears to the eyes of the Lions, who were able to do it against a team which had beaten them three times this season and in a gym where bad memories loomed.
“The last time we played there was the Christmas tournament, where we lost three 1-point games and couldn’t finish. Knowing that and then coming back from a deficit and finishing, that was huge. It’s big for our program – we’ve been putting so much into it,” said Smith.
Hines was a big catalyst for the team overcoming a 10-point deficit in the second half. The team’s point guard scored 15 of his team-high 19 points after halftime, proving to be unguardable.
The only thing that could stop Hines was some uncharacteristic misses at the line late, but when it mattered most, his stroke was pure.
“When he got fouled, he looked my way. I told him after the misses that we knew he could make the next one. He usually does his routine, but (on the last ones) he just caught it, shot it and made it,” said Smith.
David Netherton added 14 points in the victory, while Elijah Smith and Vansh Patel had seven points apiece. Ethan Hillis finished with five, followed by Smit Patel with four.
Foul trouble helped Lancaster build a seven-point lead at halftime. Covenant had to mix and match its lineup most of the second quarter, leading to the team struggling to find consistency on both ends.
The damage got worse during one sequence where Smith was hit with a technical protesting a call. The Covenant coach thought his team had drawn a charge, but the referees deemed it to be a block on a layup that had gone in.
The basket counted, and three ensuing free throws – one for the foul and two for the technical – all found the bottom of the net. After Lancaster scored on the ensuing possession, the deficit was double figures.
The Lions found their rhythm though, mostly with Hines looking calm and collective at the controls of the offense. He brought his team back with a barrage of rim attacks, short jumpers and pinpoint passes to teammates for buckets.
And when it was winning time, Hines closed the game at the line.
“I’m super proud of the guys. They believe in each other and have learned how to win. This game is the result of all the situations we have been through the whole year. They have learned how to finish games and how to play for each other,” said Smith.
Although there was a celebration and some tears of joy on the court, Smith didn’t see any in the postgame locker room. The smiles were replaced with serious faces – it was business time again.
“We’re happy, but not satisfied. I have said all year that I believe we can beat anybody on our schedule if we play hard, play smart and play together,” said Smith.
Covenant will put that faith to the test Monday night when it takes on Madison Academy at 8 p.m. in the TNCAA semifinals. With a win, the Lions would advance to the finals Tuesday night, which will be played at Lancaster Christian.