SPARTANBURG, S.C. – When is a Big South Conference game…not a Big South Conference game?
Fans in USC Upstate’s Hodge Center got that answer Wednesday night, as Gardner-Webb visited Upstate in what would have been a league game any other time. However, the schools played out the back half of a home-and-home deal as a non-league game, despite a Big South officiating crew on the whistles and the banners of fellow league schools hanging on the walls behind each basket.
Freshman wing Jose Perez’ 17 points off the bench paced four Gardner-Webb scorers in double figures, guiding the Runnin’ Bulldogs to a 74-61 result that, unfortunately – or thankfully, depending on your viewpoint — did not count in the Big South league standings.
Gardner-Webb (3-5) warmed up relatively quickly, building a double-digit lead over the homestanding Spartans midway through the first half. Upstate (1-6) connected on just two of its first nine tries from the field, owing to an active Runnin’ Bulldog defense. That margin held for several minutes, before a nearly two-minute stretch that defined much of the rest of the game.
Upstate slowly whittled an 11-point deficit to just a single point behind a 12-2 run, during which the Spartans knocked down three-pointers on four straight possessions. That one-point lead traveled with Gardner-Webb to the locker room, with the visitors enjoying a 33-32 advantage at the interval. Those four strikes from distance were four more than the Runnin’ Bulldogs converted in the period, with Gardner-Webb going 0-for-11 from deep in the opening twenty.
“We just told the guys to keep shooting,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft of his team’s halftime adjustments. “We’re shooting at about 40 percent as a team from three, so I was wondering when we were going to have a bad night, and how we were going to respond to it.”
POSTGAME AUDIO: Gardner-Webb Coach Tim Craft
“I thought our guys really did a great job the last seven minutes of the first half of giving ourselves a chance to get back in the game,” said Upstate coach Dave Dickerson. “I thought the last seven minutes of the first half was how we should play.”
POSTGAME AUDIO: USC Upstate Coach Dave Dickerson
The sides tussled through much of the second half, with Gardner-Webb struggling to create separation. The Runnin’ Bulldogs’ struggle to fend off the home side became further magnified when Upstate’s Malik Moore threw down a dunk that brought the near-capacity Hodge Center crowd to its feet, cutting the visitors’ lead to just four points. On the ensuing possession, however, Gardner-Webb forward DJ Laster drained a corner trey to provide what proved to be an insurmountable advantage.
Dickerson said after the game that the very adjustment his club made to draw it within striking distance may have been its eventual undoing.
“It was just too much of a dose of it, too long of a dose, and the fact that they got used to it,” said Dickerson of his team’s change to the zone defense in an attempt to slow down its opponent. “That was something that we didn’t think we would have to use that much […] We ended up having to go to it longer than we anticipated just to get back in the game.”
Craft mentioned that defensive look to his team at the half.
“We talked about zone offense a lot, because we thought they would continue to play us zone,” said Craft.
Perez’ 17 topped the four double-digit scorers for the Runnin’ Bulldogs, with forward Eric Jamison’s double-double close on the heels of the true freshman. Jamison tallied 16 points and hauled in 11 boards in 24 minutes of game action. Craft spoke highly of his forward’s performance after the game.
“I thought he was terrific,” said Craft. “I thought (that) when we needed a bucket, he just got a timely bucket. It might have been an offensive rebound, a putback – he had six offensive rebounds. I felt like when we needed something, he was there to score a layup at the rim or pick up an offensive rebound.”
Laster’s 13 and David Efianayi’s 11 rounded out the Gardner-Webb double-digit scorers. 42 of Gardner-Webb 74 points came in the paint. “We want to try to get a paint touch on every possession,” said Craft of his team’s philosophy.
Upstate guard Deion Holmes led the Spartans and all scorers with 18 points on 7-for-18 shooting. Freshman center Nevin Zink finished one board shy of a double-double, scoring 10 points and snagging nine rebounds.
“I think he’s going to be the reason why we become a better team,” said Dickerson of his young post player. “We’re going to have to be able to play through him some in the post. We have to be able to play some more inside-out offense.
“I think his progression is going to help us, and if he can stay out of foul trouble and we can have a reliable scorer on the block, that’s the element that we’re missing right now.”
Gardner-Webb hosts Savannah State Saturday afternoon, in its first home game of the season. That game is slated to tip at 3:00 (Eastern) in Paul Porter Arena. Upstate returns to the road, traveling to Western Michigan for a 2:00 game Saturday afternoon.
Dickerson offered a blunt assessment after the game of the first thing his team needs to correct before hitting the floor this weekend.
“We’ve lost our defensive identity,” said Dickerson. “We’ve got to get back to being able to guard the basketball effectively, being able to play on the weak side effectively, and be able to make those defensive plays that it takes to win games.”
GARDNER-WEBB 74, USC UPSTATE 61
GARDNER-WEBB (3-5): Jamison 6-10 4-4 16, Turner 0-3 0-0 0, Johnson 2-6 0-0 4, Efianayi 5-9 1-2 11, Laster 6-8 0-0 13, Alston 0-0 0-0 0, Cornwall 2-5 2-2 7, Jenkins 0-1 0-0 0, Perez 5-10 5-6 17, Miller 0-1 0-0 0, Dufeal 2-4 2-2 6. Totals 28-57 14-16 74.
USC UPSTATE (1-6): Moore 3-9 1-3 8, Span 2-6 0-0 6, Holmes 7-18 1-1 18, Aldrich 1-3 0-0 2, Zink 2-5 6-8 10, White 0-2 1-2 1, Hammond 2-5 0-0 6, Martin 1-4 2-2 4, Mozone 2-4 0-0 6, Ryan 0-0 0-0 0, Welch 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-57 11-16 61.
Halftime — Gardner-Webb 33-32. 3-Point Goals—Gardner-Webb 4-18 (Jamison 0-1, Turner 0-2, Johnson 0-4, Efianayi 0-3, Laster 1-1, Cornwall 1-2, Jenkins 0-1, Perez 2-4), USC Upstate 10-29 (Moore 1-5, Span 2-4, Holmes 3-10, Aldrich 0-2, White 0-1, Hammond 2-3, Mozone 2-3, Welch 0-1). Fouled Out — NA. Rebounds — USC Upstate 40 (Zink 9), Gardner-Webb 31 (Jamison 11). Assists — Gardner-Webb 12 (Turner/Johnson/Cornwall 3), USC Upstate 10 (Span 5). Total Fouls — USC Upstate 20, Gardner-Webb 16. Technical — NA. A — 635 (878).
Points in the Paint —Gardner-Webb 42, USC Upstate 18. Points off Turnovers —Gardner-Webb 12, USC Upstate 4. Second-Chance Points — USC Upstate 23, Gardner-Webb 10. Fast Break Points — Gardner-Webb 2, USC Upstate 0. Bench Points— Gardner-Webb 30, USC Upstate 17.