BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. – With a battle for first place in the Big South Conference unfolding between Gardner-Webb and Radford, one had to know Friday night’s game between the two would be a 40-minute fight.
The homestanding Runnin’ Bulldogs punched. The Highlanders counterpunched.
In the end, Gardner-Webb claimed the unanimous decision, finishing off Radford, 59-54, in front of an announced crowd of 1,244.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft. “It’s been (a) close game against Liberty, overtime against Campbell, Longwood, that we lost, and High Point wasn’t quite (as close). Three out of four close games, we’ve been able to find a way to win. That’s great, because last year was a struggle for us. We didn’t get that done.”
Gardner-Webb (9-9, 4-1 Big South) opened up a 13-4 lead over the first nine-and-a-half minutes of the contest, as the Highlanders struggled to a 3-for-16 start from the floor. A Carlik Jones layup cut the lead to seven, but the ‘Dogs went on another 11-3 burst. A Liam O’Reilly triple punctuated that run, pushing the margin to 24-9. Radford (11-7, 4-1) reached double digits at the 4:09 mark of the first half, as Caleb Tanner dropped a trey of his own. Gardner-Webb got a running one-handed try from O’Reilly in the lane just before the horn, taking a 28-16 lead to the interval. Radford connected on just 6-of-26 tries from the floor in the stanza, including 1-for-11 from distance.
“Obviously, in the first half, our defense, I thought, was terrific,” said Craft. “(We) really (wanted) to guard the three-point line. They were coming in shooting 43 percent in league play.”
Christian Turner converted on the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ first bucket of the second half, before Radford responded with the counterpunch Craft knew was coming. The Highlanders went on a 16-5 run over the next five minutes, keyed largely by seven quick points from Ed Polite. As the lead for the home side narrowed to 35-32, O’Reilly capped a possession with a wild shot that energized the crowd and drew a sigh of relief from his coach. As the shot clock neared its end, O’Reilly splashed home an off-balance try from distance that – for the time, anyway – put a stop to the visitors’ momentum.
“It was kind of late in the (shot) clock,” said Craft. “He didn’t have a lot of options there. Once it gets under ten (seconds), they kind of have a green light to try to create something … When it gets under ten, those guys have gotta make a play, and they’ve gotta be confident to do that, and man, what a big shot that was.”
The shot sparked a 16-4 burst that extended the Gardner-Webb lead to 15, and, according to Craft, helped determine the outcome.
“We started stringing some stops together, we got out and made a couple shots, and we got it back up to , and then they stormed back,” said Craft. “That run was the game, really. We were able to just kind of hold on for dear life.”
Hold on, they did.
Radford wielded its chisel, carving out an 18-5 explosion of its own over the span of six-and-a-half minutes. A Polite dunk placed the game on the razor’s edge, putting the Highlanders within a possession of gaining their first lead of the game at 56-54. Radford coach Mike Jones called time after that dunk, as his bench erupted. Radford could draw no closer, however, as a three-point attempt missed the mark on the next trip to its end of the floor. Forward Patrick Zeck calmly strode to the line and converted both ends of a one-and-one that pushed the lead to four, then stepped into the lane and stole a pass on the next possession that helped seal the decision.
O’Reilly and Zeck both provided sizeable contributions in the absence of guard Jaheam Cornwall and forward Brandon Miller, who both missed the game with knee injuries. O’Reilly finished with 17 points on 7-for-15 shooting to lead the ‘Dogs. Though Zeck recorded just four points, he hauled in six boards and converted the two key, late free throws. Guard David Efianayi added 12, with forward D.J. Laster contributing 11 points off the bench. Center L’Hassane Niangane scored just four points, but snatched a career-high 12 rebounds and provided a vital post presence. “I think these are the types of games that you really need him in,” said Craft of his big man. “Radford is the most physical team on the glass in our league. He really gives you a guy in there that can anchor your defense. His toughness and physicality was terrific. He’s a guy that’s hard to keep off the glass, himself.”
Polite was the lone Highlander to finish in double figures, scoring 15 on 5-for-11 shooting. Five-time freshman of the week Carlik Jones was severely limited by the Gardner-Webb defense, finishing with just six points. “Yeah, no question,” said Craft with a laugh when asked if he would have taken the combined 7-for-24 shooting effort to which his club held Polite and Jones if offered it before the game. “The guys did a good job on them, and Polite still knocked down one three and made some big plays. He’s a hard guy to guard.” Craft continued, “I think us being able to limit their threes and make their threes (contested), that was big for us.” The Highlanders were held to just 6-for-22 from beyond the arc.
Radford returns home to the Dedmon Center for a conference game against cross-Commonwealth rival Liberty Monday evening. That game is scheduled for a 7:00 (Eastern) start, and will stream on the Big South Network. Gardner-Webb opens a stretch in which three of four games will be on the road Monday, traveling to conference foe Winthrop. That 7:00 tip will stream over the Stadium Network, with a simulcast on the Big South Network.
GARDNER-WEBB 59, RADFORD 54
RADFORD (11-7, 4-1 BIG SOUTH): Polite Jr 5-11 4-8 15, Phillips 2-3 2-5 6, Jones 2-13 1-2 6, Bradford 0-0 0-0 0, Hicks 2-6 1-2 6, Tanner 2-5 2-2 8, Fields Jr 3-9 0-0 7, Butts IV 0-1 0-0 0, Cousin 0-1 0-0 0, Holland 3-5 0-0 6. Totals 19-54 10-19 54.
GARDNER-WEBB (9-9, 4-1): Zeck 1-2 2-2 4, Niangane 1-3 2-3 4, Turner 3-4 1-2 8, O’Reilly 7-15 0-0 17, Efianayi 3-11 4-4 12, Robateau 0-7 1-2 1, Jamison 1-2 0-0 2, Laster 5-11 1-2 11. Totals 21-55 11-15 59.
Halftime — Gardner-Webb 28-16. 3-Point Goals—Radford 6-22 (Polite Jr 1-4, Jones 1-6, Hicks 1-2, Tanner 2-3, Fields Jr 1-5, Butts IV 0-1, Cousin 0-1), Gardner-Webb 6-18 (Turner 1-1, O’Reilly 3-7, Efianayi 2-3, Robateau 0-4, Jamison 0-1, Laster 0-2). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — Gardner-Webb 42 (Niangane 12), Radford 33 (Polite Jr/Phillips 9). Assists — Radford 12 (Bradford/Fields Jr 4), Gardner-Webb 6 (Turner/O’Reilly 2). Total Fouls — Gardner-Webb 21, Radford 14. Technical — Bradford (RAD). A — 1244.
Points in the Paint —Gardner-Webb 30, Radford 20. Points off Turnovers —Gardner-Webb 21, Radford 18. Second-Chance Points — Radford 8, Gardner-Webb 6. Fast Break Points — Gardner-Webb 9, Radford 2. Bench Points — Radford 21, Gardner-Webb 14.