BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. – 31 miles.
Only those miles – and a conference affiliation – separate USC Upstate and Gardner-Webb. Next year, both schools will be part of the Big South Conference, after Upstate announced its intent in November to leave the Atlantic Sun and join the Big South, beginning with the 2018 season. The homestanding Runnin’ Bulldogs gave their soon-to-be-conference mates a rude welcome before that change takes place, however.
Sophomore forward Patrick Zeck recorded his first career double-double in his first Gardner-Webb start, joining three other Runnin’ Bulldogs in double figures, helping bring home a decisive 87-66 victory over visiting USC Upstate in front of a reported crowd of 725 Saturday afternoon in Paul Porter Arena.
“We needed this. We needed to feel a win,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft after the game. “We had a couple tough games up in Ohio (at the Wright State Tournament) – close games. We could have won any of them, particularly the last two, (and) we struggled in some areas. Today, we got it going.”
The first eight minutes of the contest featured a back-and-forth battle that saw both sides shoot just above 40 percent and struggle to create separation. A trade of three-pointers, first from Gardner-Webb’s Jaheam Cornwall and then from Upstate’s Jure Span, seemed innocent enough, tying the game at 21.
What happened from there had to be just what the doctor ordered for Craft and his Runnin’ Bulldogs.
Gardner-Webb (3-6) unleashed a 16-0 run over the next four-plus minutes, swelling the home club’s advantage to 37-21. Zeck and guard Liam O’Reilly combined for much of that run, including a heat-check three midway through the burst from nearly 30 feet that forced a timeout by Spartans coach Kyle Perry. “We need him (O’Reilly) to be really good. We’ve put him in a lot of situations to make plays for us, and we need him to continue to be good for us,” said Craft. “I think he feels comfortable and confident in his teammates.”
USC Upstate (3-7) halted the Bulldogs’ run with two Span free throws, but it only briefly stemmed the tide. Craft’s club continued its hot shooting, making its way to a 22-point lead at the interval on the strength of 67.9 percent shooting. The Runnin’ Bulldogs connected on all of their final 12 shots of the period, while limiting the Spartans to just 34.5 percent (10-for-29) in the half.
The home side struggled a bit as the second half began, committing more turnovers (four) in the first 3:53 of the second half than it had in the entire first half (three). Any worries Gardner-Webb may have had in that first segment quickly vanished, though, as the Runnin’ Bulldogs didn’t miss until just over six minutes into the half, bringing to a close an unbelievable 16-for-16 shooting binge.
Had Craft ever seen one of his teams make 16 shots in a row?
“No, I didn’t even know they did that. Wow.”
Gardner-Webb achieved its biggest lead of the contest just before that string ended, with a D.J. Laster triple pushing the margin to 27. The advantage never dipped below 20 from there, as though Upstate started to find its stride on the offensive end, the Runnin’ Bulldogs simply proved largely incapable of missing the mark. GWU took just 15 shots in the period, hitting 10, and incredibly saw their overall shooting percentage for the game decrease. Upstate connected on 48.1 percent of its second-half shots (13-for-27), but the margin proved too large to overcome.
In a game with so many notable performances, Zeck turned in what was perhaps its biggest. The 6-foot-7 Atlanta native shined in his initial start, scoring 13 points and nearly singlehandedly outrebounding the Spartans. Upstate finished with 15 rebounds, versus Zeck’s 14. “I just thought he was great,” said Craft of his sophomore forward. “What can you say? 5-for-5 (from the field) […] He had a great practice yesterday. I went back and watched our practice on film, and felt really good about playing him a lot of minutes. I thought he would be a big key for us today, based on the way he practiced.”
O’Reilly led his club with 19 points on 6-for-8 shooting (4-for-6 from three), tallying five boards and four of his team’s 24 assists on 29 made baskets. Laster poured in 18, while Cornwall added 11. Gardner-Webb finished the game shooting 67.4 percent (29-for-43), hitting 71.4 percent from distance (10-for-14).
Upstate shot 41.1 percent (23-for-56), rebounding well after a challenging first half. Wing Malik Moore paced the Spartans with 12 points, knocking down 4-of-8 tries. Span accompanied Moore in double figures, scoring 10 on 3-for-6 shooting. Sharpshooter Deion Holmes was held to his second game in a row in single digits after four straight with double figures, scoring just seven. Holmes collected two fouls before the first media timeout of the game, and was limited to just 14 minutes in the contest.
Both teams will hit the road for midweek contests. Upstate will travel to Manhattan, Kansas, to take on Kansas State Tuesday evening. That game is scheduled for an 8:00 (Eastern) start, and will be carried on ESPN3. Gardner-Webb will play at Auburn Wednesday evening. That game will also tip at 8:00.
GARDNER-WEBB 87, USC UPSTATE 66
USC UPSTATE (3-7): Moore 4-8 3-5 12, Thompkins 1-4 3-3 5, Cunningham 2-7 0-0 5, Span 3-6 2-2 10, Holmes 3-7 0-0 7, Nelson 0-1 0-0 0, Diggs 0-0 0-0 0, Anderson 4-5 1-3 9, Smith 3-5 0-0 9, Welch 0-4 0-2 0, Booker 3-9 1-2 9. Totals 23-56 10-17 66.
GARDNER-WEBB (3-6): Zeck 5-5 3-4 13, Laster 7-14 2-2 18, Turner 1-1 4-4 6, O’Reilly 6-8 3-5 19, Efianayi 2-2 2-2 6, Cornwall 3-3 2-2 11, Jenkins 0-0 1-2 1, Johnson 2-4 0-0 5, Miller 2-3 0-2 4, Niangane 1-2 2-2 4. Totals 29-43 19-25 87.
Halftime — Gardner-Webb 52-30. 3-Point Goals—USC Upstate 10-26 (Moore 1-2, Thompkins 0-2, Cunningham 1-4, Span 2-4, Holmes 1-3, Smith 3-4, Booker 2-4), Gardner-Webb 10-14 (Laster 2-2, O’Reilly 4-6, Cornwall 3-3, Johnson 1-3). Fouled Out — Miller (GWU). Rebounds — Gardner-Webb 38 (Zeck 14), USC Upstate 15 (Moore/Cunningham/Anderson/Smith/Welch/Team 2). Assists — Gardner-Webb 24 (Turner/Cornwall 6), USC Upstate 13 (Cunningham 4). Total Fouls — USC Upstate 19, Gardner-Webb 17. Technical — Niangane (GWU). A — 725.
Points in the Paint —Gardner-Webb 38, USC Upstate 22. Points off Turnovers —USC Upstate 13, Gardner-Webb 10. Second-Chance Points — Gardner-Webb 13, USC Upstate 4. Fast Break Points — Gardner-Webb 11, USC Upstate 0. Bench Points — USC Upstate 27, Gardner-Webb 25.