North Georgia builds big lead, pulls away from Lander for PBC Tournament title

North Georgia builds big lead, pulls away from Lander for PBC Tournament title

DAHLONEGA, Ga. – Deana Blankinship made 12 of 12 shots from the floor and scored 26 points, leading the University of North Georgia past the Lander Bearcats 76-60 for the Peach Belt Conference Women's Basketball Tournament championship Sunday afternoon at the UNG Convocation Center.

The PBC regular season and tournament champion Nighthawks improved to 27-4.

Second-seeded Lander fell to 24-7 and will advance to the NCAA Division II Tournament. The pairings will be announced tonight.

The Bearcats were appearing in the PBC title game for the eighth time in program history. Lander won tournament championships in 1999, 2008, 2009, and 2016.

Sunday's contest marked the first time in program history that Lander appeared in three consecutive PBC Tournament championship games. But North Georgia broke a 14-all tie early in the second quarter with a 9-0 run and never looked back.

The Bearcats did trim a 22-point deficit in the middle of the third quarter down to nine early in the fourth before North Georgia pulled away.

Breshay Johnson paced Lander with 22 points on nine of 14 shooting. Jessica Harris ignited a short-lived rally for the Bearcats with a big third quarter and finished with 16 points while leading the team with five assists. Fourteen of her 16 points came in the third period.

Lander's Chelsea Mitchell, who joined Johnson as an All PBC first-teamer, was held to eight points. Johnson, Mitchell and Destinee Langford paced the Bearcats with six rebounds apiece.

Blankinship, a 5-foot-10 senior forward, did not miss a shot while also grabbing eight rebounds and leading the Nighthawks with four assists. Julie McKie, Julianne Sutton and Abbie Franklin added 11 points apiece while Sutton led North Georgia with nine boards and McKie paced them with five assists.

Johnson and Mitchell made the All-PBC Tournament team for Lander while Blankinship and Tournament MVP McKie represented the Nighthawks.

North Georgia built a 10-2 lead but went 10 consecutive possessions without scoring, mostly due to turnovers. Langford drove in for a layup to pull the Bearcats within 10-8 and they were down 14-10 after one quarter.

Lander's Tabitha Dailey made a put-back to tie the game at 14-all in the opening minute of the second quarter. But the Nighthawks responded with nine unanswered points, seven by McKie, to take the lead for good.

Sutton's put-back with 33 seconds left gave North Georgia a 33-19 halftime lead.

The Nighthawks made 16 of 25 shots from the floor (64 percent) in the first half to only nine of 33 (27 percent) for Lander, including 0-for-6 from behind the arc. North Georgia out-rebounded the Bearcats 20-10 in the first two quarters.

The Nighthawks opened the second half with a 6-0 run, building their lead to 39-19. It was Lander's first 20-point deficit since a Dec. 2 loss at Columbus State.

North Georgia took its biggest lead of the game at 22 points, 45-23, with 6:24 left in the third on Vanessa Argusa's free throw. It became Lander's largest deficit of the entire season.

But the Bearcats began a comeback with an 8-0 run, with all eight points by Harris. She hit Lander's first 3-pointer of the game from the right corner, added a layup, and hit a 3 from the left side for a 45-31 deficit.

Christal Williams hit a 3 and Johnson made a pair of layups to pull the Bearcats within 52-42 with two minutes left, and another Harris bucket cut the deficit into single figures at 55-46. Lander trailed 57-46 going into the final quarter.

Johnson made a pair of free throws to pull the Bearcats back within nine at 59-50 with 7:54 left in the game.

But PBC Freshman of the Year Franklin hit an open 3 from the right corner, giving North Georgia a 69-52 lead with 4:12 to go.

The lead returned to 20 on Amber Skidgel's 3, making it 74-54 inside the two-minute mark.