LAGRANGE – The season was still in its infancy when LaGrange College and Birmingham-Southern faced off in Mariotti Gym.
It was a thriller, with the home-standing Panthers winning 88-80 in overtime, with Justyn Olson scoring what was at the time a career-high 29 points.
Today, three months after that first meeting, LaGrange College and Birmingham-Southern will play again, and the stakes will be significantly higher this time around.
Those two teams will meet in the first round of the NCAA Division III national tournament, and they’ll play at Emory University, with tip-off set for 5:30 p.m.
The winner advances to the second round to play either Emory or Covenant at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
LaGrange College (20-8) earned an at-large invitation to the tournament after falling to Covenant in the USA South championship game, while a red-hot Birmingham-Southern team went 22-6 and won the Southern Athletic Association title.
LaGrange College is making its third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
The Panthers earned an automatic NCAA bid in 2014 and 2015 after winning the USA South title, but this year they had to sweat things out.
After losing to Covenant on Saturday, LaGrange College had to wait until Monday to find out if it would be going to the NCAA tournament or not.
The team got together on Monday to watch as the bracket was revealed, and when LaGrange College’s name popped up, there was an explosion of emotion.
“I think that video says a lot. Every single person in that video was excited, whether they play or not,” said Olson, a junior from LaGrange High. “Just to see that raw emotion, and to see everybody happy, it really was a great moment for us.”
The Panthers earned their at-large bid because of the exceptional resume they put together over the course of the season.
The Panthers played a challenging schedule that included the other three teams in the Emory regional.
LaGrange College was 1-0 against Birmingham-Southern and Emory, and it went 2-1 against Covenant.
“We go into this tournament, and we go into (today), thinking that we can beat anybody in the country,” Olson said. “That’s our mindset. We know that they can beat us if we don’t come ready to play. But if we come ready to play, and we’re on our game, then we believe we can beat any team in the country. We have that confidence.”
The Panthers get it done with a powerful offense that puts up 88 points per game, and they have five players who average in double figures, including Olson, who leads the team with 16.6 points a game.
Mark Wagner, LaGrange College’s outstanding senior guard, scores 15.2 points per game, and sophomore guard Alex Bonner averages 12 points a game.
Senior guard Braxton Ford and junior forward Drew Vanderbrook are scoring 11.8 and 11.5 points per game, respectively.
Mike White, one of three seniors on the team along with Ford and Wagner, contributes seven points a game.
Wagner, who comes from Cape Coral, Fla., has been starting since he was a sophomore, and he’s a key reason why the Panthers are in the midst of such a phenomenal three-year stretch.
He was second on the team in scoring as a sophomore with 13.8 points a game, and he scored 13.4 points per game last season.
While he has increased his scoring total this season, he continues to be an exceptional all-around player.
He leads the team in assists, steals, 3-pointers made and free-throw percentage, and he’s second in rebounding.
Wagner also plays more minutes than anyone on the team, and in the USA South title game, he never left the court, playing all 45 minutes.
Ford, who comes from LaBelle, Fla., has also been a key contributor the past three seasons, and he has averaged double digits in points the past two years.
“(Wagner) and Braxton do a great job of leading us,” Olson said. “Mark and Braxton, they’re one of the best duos that I’ve ever been around. They taught me a lot, and taught me everything about Division III college basketball really.”
Olson said part of what makes Wagner such a special player is his passion to succeed.
“He taught me a lot about how to play defense, and just the desire to win,” Olson said. “I’ve never met anybody that wants to win any more than Mark.”
Birmingham-Southern isn’t as prolific a scoring team as LaGrange College, but it has obviously found the winning formula.
Since losing to Hampden-Sydney on Dec. 29, Birmingham-Southern has ripped off 18 straight wins, and it didn’t lose a conference game.
Senior Alex Avery leads Birmingham-Southern with 13.6 points per game, and Harrison Deneka scores 11.1 points a game.
“We beat Birmingham-Southern once, but it’s going to be a different game,” Olson said. “They’re on an 18-game winning streak. It’s going to be a barn-burner. It’s going to be a close one. It’s going to be up to who wants it more.”
Reach Kevin Eckleberry at (706) 884-7311 or on Twitter @lagrangesports