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By Scott Rouch

Dec. 17, Aiken, SC---After two days of intense play, the Shaw University Bears emerged on top while the Virginia Union University Panthers experienced technical difficulties at USC Aiken’s 2010 Conoco Phillips and Quality Energy Services Pre-Holiday Classic.basketball_bounces

The Bears (6-1) took out the Trojans of Mt. Olive College (6-3), 67-54, in front of a sparse holiday crowd, going unbeaten in the two-day tournament while running their win streak to five games. In the final game, USC Aiken (7-2) responded from their loss to the Bears the previous night with a 69-62 win over #23Panthers (2-2) that wasn’t decided until the final minutes. The losses most likely will drop the Panthers from the top 25.

Everybody was a winner in the end.

"I thought the competition was great, it was a great classic with four really good teams," said Vince Alexander, head coach of the host and fourth-ranked Pacers. "Virginia Union could very well have gone out of here 2-0, Mt. Olive could have gone out of here 2-0 or we could have gone out of here 2-0.

Against the Trojans, Bears leading scorer Raheem Smith didn’t take his first shot until just over five minutes remained in the first half. To that point, the Bears had seen a nine-point advantage turn into a tie game at 18. Smith sank his first shot, turned it into a conventional three-point play, hit his next shot and sparked the Bears to a 12-0 run to end the first half. Smith’s first shot of the second half was a fall-away banker from the right baseline while being fouled. His three-point play gave the Bears a 39-22 lead at the 14:57 mark.

"He took the challenge on their best scorer (all-tournament Derek Staton) defensively," said Bears head coach Cleo Hill, Jr. of Smith’s limited shooting in the first half…"We didn’t want him (Smith) tired, we didn’t want him in foul trouble, but he wanted to take the challenge and he responded."

Staton wasn’t shut down entirely, scoring 15 points with one assist, but it was down from his 20/4 performance against the Panthers. Smith would finish with 15 points and three assists and was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

The Trojans got to within six points with just under two minutes to play, but the Bears pulled away at the end.

"We’re running on fumes. I tip my hat to Shaw, Shaw’s a very good team," said Trojans head coach Joey Higginbotham. "The two guards are tough guards; they’re as good as guards we’re going to see all year in our region, everything," Higginbotham said referring to Smith and his cousin Tony Smith.

Bears’ point guard Tony Smith had 15 points, Sheridan Price added 14 points and Jamaar Hosier was a force in the paint with 10 points and a game-high 13 rebounds.

After being whistled for 26 fouls against Mt. Olive, the Panthers had 29 fouls called against them when they faced the Pacers. It was two technical fouls, however, that might have turned the game around in the end.

Panthers leading scorer Braxton Byerson was struggling from the field and was whistled for a technical foul with 5:59 left in the first half. After scoring his first points of the game on a tip-in at the 16:48 mark of the second half, having gone 0-7 from the field to that point, Byerson let out a roar of relief and was promptly whistled for his second technical, bringing with it automatic ejection.

"It hurt us when Braxton Byerson got ejected from the game, that was a big blow to us, but I thought we hung in there and showed we can play without him," said Panthers head coach Willard Coker. "We didn’t have quite enough at the end but I’m proud of the guys’ performance."

When Byerson picked up his first technical, Coker sat him on the bench facing a 26-14 deficit. The bench sparked a quick 8-0 run, led by four points from junior guard Wayne Ford, cutting the deficit to 26-22.

Ford, who entered the game averaging eight minutes and 3.7 points-per-game, finished with 22 points in 16 minutes of action and was named to the all-tournament team.

"We have a lot of guys on the team that played a lot last year," Coker said. "It’s just a matter of working them in trying to get minutes for them," said Coker, who added he was sorry he hadn’t played Ford more.

Ford was the only Panther in double figures, but Coker got contributions from all ends of his bench with 10 players playing double-figure minutes. Guards led the way on the glass for the Panthers as they out-rebounded the bigger Pacers, 47-38, with Byerson and Branden McDonald grabbing six apiece.

Free throws had been a problem for the Pacers against Shaw and the free-throw-line was not charitable to either squad and it played a crucial role in the game’s final minutes. The Pacers converted 26-of-43 attempts from the stripe while the Panthers made just 10-of-22.

Tied at 62 with 1:07 to go, Sterling Council sank two free throws for the Pacers, Jeffrey White threw the ball away on the Panthers ensuing possession and all-tournament guard Byron Faison turned it into two free throws on the other end for a four-point advantage with 25 seconds left. Another Panthers turnover led to two more Faison (24 points) free throws to seal the win.

Pacers center Michael Technow finished with 12 points and five rebounds and was also named to the all-tournament team.


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