BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. – Before its Saturday afternoon game against UNC Asheville, Gardner-Webb honored three seniors that took somewhat indirect routes to land in southwestern North Carolina. One of those seniors, Liam O’Reilly, simply summed up his two years with the Runnin’ Bulldogs after the game.
“It’s been the best thing ever,” said O’Reilly.
The native Texan went out in style on Senior Day in Paul Porter Arena, scoring 24 points and guiding his club to a 72-61 victory before an announced crowd of 1,581.
“It was great to finish out a game here where guys made some really tough offensive plays in the last three minutes,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft. “I’m proud of the team for being able to go out with a win here at home.”
O’Reilly was one of the players who made some of those tough plays. Before that time arrived, though, the regional rivals put forth the type of classic to which both groups of fans have become accustomed.
Asheville (20-11, 13-5 Big South) sprinted out to a 13-5 lead, The Bulldogs, playing without senior star Ahmad Thomas, who missed the game with a left foot injury, got two early MaCio Teague three-pointers to nearly bookend the early run. Gardner-Webb (14-17, 9-9) quickly countered, using a 15-7 burst to level the game at 20 at the 11-minute mark.
The sides traded punches for much of the remainder of the first half, before O’Reilly heated up. Asheville forward Donovan Gilmore knocked down two free throws to put the Bulldogs ahead 32-30, after which O’Reilly personally outscored the visitors 10-2 over a span of nearly three minutes. The homestanding Bulldogs took a 43-36 lead to the interval, doubling up the visiting Bulldogs, 25-12, on the boards.
“I think that definitely got me going a little bit,” said O’Reilly of his hot stretch. “Just to see it go in as a shooter, it’s just always nice, especially early. That’s the great thing about my teammates and my coaches. They always keep instilling confidence in me. They believe in me, and I can’t thank them enough for doing that.”
Gardner-Webb quickly extended its lead to double digits as the second stanza commenced, stretching the advantage as far as 11 points. After a David Efianayi bucket returned the margin to 10 at 51-41, the run most would expect from the newly-minted regular-season Big South champion appeared. Asheville held Gardner-Webb without a bucket for a four-minute, 27-second stretch, as the visitors’ 8-0 burst knifed the lead to just two.
The visitors continued their attempts to get over the hump and regain the lead, but Craft’s side continued to hold the visiting Bulldogs at arm’s length. The lead shrank to a single point on several occasions, but Gardner-Webb made key shots while holding off the charge. The homestanding Bulldogs held Asheville scoreless for the final four minutes and nine seconds of the contest.
The Bulldogs’ three seniors – center L’Hassane Niangane (Chalon-Sur-Saone, France), wing Jamaal Robateau (Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia) and O’Reilly (Austin, Texas) received their honors before the game. Craft told the media, “This guy here was terrific,” prior to giving O’Reilly a hug after the game. The high-scoring backcourt star knocked down 9-of-18 tries from the field (4-for-7 from distance), along with snagging seven rebounds. O’Reilly spoke after the game of his arrival in Boiling Springs, and his appreciation for the time.
“The way I came up, I’ve always felt like I’ve been a little underdog,” said O’Reilly. “People didn’t really give me an opportunity. Gardner-Webb, [associate head] coach [Jeremy] Luther, coach Craft, [assistant] coach [DeAntoine] Beasley, [assistant] coach [Paul] Hemrick, they all believed in me and gave me an opportunity. From the first time, I just told them I was gonna make the best of this opportunity … It means a lot to me to go out like this on Senior Night.”
Two Runnin’ Bulldog scorers joined O’Reilly in double figures. Efianayi poured in 19, converting on 3-of-6 tries from beyond the arc and hauling in six boards. Forward D.J. Laster contributed a double-double, scoring 16 points and snatching 11 rebounds in 33 minutes.
Three Asheville scorers also finished in double digits. Forward Alec Wnuk paced the visitors with 15 on 6-of-9 shooting. Teague and Raekwon Miller both added 11.
Asheville, by virtue of its regular-season championship, earned the right to host at least the quarterfinals and semifinals of the Big South Conference tournament. The Bulldogs will face off with the winner of the Tuesday play-in game between eighth-seeded Charleston Southern and ninth-seeded Presbyterian. That quarterfinal contest is slated to tip at 7:00 (Eastern) Thursday evening.
Gardner-Webb draws the sixth seed, and will almost assuredly draw third-seeded Winthrop at approximately 3:00 Thursday afternoon. The Eagles got the best of two regular-season matchups against the Runnin’ Bulldogs, defeating Gardner-Webb 90-67 on January 15 and taking a 90-71 decision on February 15. Craft and O’Reilly expressed excitement for another chance to face the Eagles.
“You’re gonna have to go through a good team to win the championship,” stated Craft. “Our goal isn’t to win a second-round game and hang around. We’ve been doing that. We’ve been in the semifinals the last three years. That’s not our goal. You’re gonna have to play a great team if you wanna have a chance to cut the nets down. We’re gonna get a great team in the first round.”
“I’m excited. I’m really excited. I’ve been here for two years, and lost to them five times in a row,” added O’Reilly. “I’m a competitor, and I’m gonna give it my all.”
GARDNER-WEBB 72, UNC ASHEVILLE 61
UNC ASHEVILLE (20-11, 13-5 BIG SOUTH): Baehre 2-11 0-0 4, Wnuk 6-9 3-4 15, Vannatta 2-6 0-1 4, Miller 4-8 1-3 11, Teague 3-11 2-2 11, Gilmore 3-5 3-4 9, Brown 1-3 0-0 2, Seegars 0-1 0-0 0, Rackley 2-2 0-0 5. Totals 23-56 9-14 61.
GARDNER-WEBB (14-17, 9-9): Laster 7-13 2-5 16, Niangane 0-2 0-0 0, Cornwall 0-5 0-0 0, O’Reilly 9-18 2-3 24, Efianayi 6-14 4-5 19, Jamison 0-3 1-2 1, Jenkins 2-6 2-2 8, Zeck 1-2 2-2 4. Totals 25-63 13-19 72.
Halftime — Gardner-Webb 43-36. 3-Point Goals—Asheville 6-27 (Baehre 0-8, Vannatta 0-3, Miller 2-5, Teague 3-7, Brown 0-2, Seegars 0-1, Rackley 1-1), Gardner-Webb 9-23 (Laster 0-1, Cornwall 0-3, O’Reilly 4-7, Efianayi 3-6, Jenkins 2-6). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — Gardner-Webb 51 (Laster 11), Asheville 30 (Gilmore 6). Assists —Gardner-Webb 14 (Cornwall 6), Asheville 13 (Miller 4). Total Fouls — Asheville 16, Gardner-Webb 15. Technical — Team (GWU). A — 1581.
Points in the Paint —Asheville 30, Gardner-Webb 28. Points off Turnovers —Asheville 16, Gardner-Webb 11. Second-Chance Points — Gardner-Webb 13, Asheville 5. Fast Break Points — Asheville 5, Gardner-Webb 2. Bench Points — Asheville 16, Gardner-Webb 13.
Big South Tournament Schedule
First Round – Tuesday, Feb. 27 – Big South Network/Roku
Game 1: #10 Longwood at #7 High Point, TBD
Game 2: #9 Presbyterian at #8 Charleston Southern, TBD
Quarterfinals – Thursday, March 1 – ESPN3
Game 3: #2 Radford vs. #7/10 winner, 1:00pm
Game 4: #3 Winthrop vs. #6 Gardner-Webb, 3:00pm
Game 5: #1 UNC Asheville vs. #8/9 winner, 7:00pm
Game 6: #4 Campbell vs. #5 Liberty, 9:00pm
Semifinals – Friday, March 2 – ESPN3
Game 7: Semifinals – Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 6:00pm
Game 8: Semifinals – Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 8:00pm
Championship – Sunday, March 4 – ESPN
Game 9: Championship – Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 1:00pm