BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. – “We’ve got something going on right now.”
In a game that defied really any other explanation, maybe that statement from Gardner-Webb freshman sensation Jose Perez after the game said it all.
Gardner-Webb trailed by as many as 13 in the second half, but fought back to send the game to overtime on a bucket by Perez and hold off Kennesaw State in the extra period, taking an 81-77 decision before an announced crowd of 1,069 at Paul Porter Arena Thursday afternoon. The result marked Gardner-Webb’s fifth straight victory, a feat it has not achieved since winning eight in a row during the 2012-13 season.
“(It was) an ugly game. I thought it was gonna be an ugly game. They really grind you in the half-court offense,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft. “I didn’t think we played very (well), but credit Kennesaw State for that … I’m proud of our team for finding a way to win the game.”
POSTGAME AUDIO: Gardner-Webb Coach Tim Craft (press play below)
Gardner-Webb (7-5) raced out of the stall to a 9-2 lead, appearing poised to make an early statement. The Owls fought back, though, just as Craft and his club feared. Kennesaw State (1-9) went on a 24-9 tear over a nine-minute stretch, turning that early deficit into an eight-point advantage at the six-minute mark of the first half. The lead stayed near that mark for much of the remainder of the period, before a string of five straight Gardner-Webb free throws knifed the margin to a single bucket. The Owls scored the final four points of the half, though, taking a six-point lead to the interval.
The spiral continued for the Runnin’ Bulldogs as the closing twenty commenced, with the Owls quickly extending the lead to double digits just into the period. Making matters worse, star guard David Efianayi collected his third and fourth fouls before the under-16 media break, sending the redshirt senior to the Gardner-Webb bench for an extended respite.
What seemed like a curse at the time, though, turned into a blessing for the Runnin’ Bulldogs.
The foul trouble for Efianayi led Craft to simultaneously play his two point guards, Christian Turner and Jaheam Cornwall. Slowly – and with Cornwall’s help – the deficit faded. A Cornwall triple cut it to nine. A DJ Laster trey trimmed that by a third. Cornwall hit Laster on a beautiful alley-oop and reduced it to four. Kennesaw State coach Al Skinner called for a stoppage, which helped his Owls briefly stem the tide.
“We had some guys in foul trouble,” said Craft. “We ended up playing both of our point guards together, and then we actually were big at that time, too, with (forward) Ludovic (Dufeal) and DJ in at the same time, and I thought those two guys – the big guys – helped us get some stops.” The Runnin’ Bulldogs held Kennesaw State without a field goal for a stretch of 7:06 in the second half.
That defensive effort allowed Gardner-Webb to pull within a bucket on numerous occasions, but not to retake the lead. That all changed after the final media break, as an 8-0 Runnin’ Bulldog run wiped out a six-point deficit and brought to a close the nearly 28-minute lead by the Owls. The lead lasted all of 15 seconds, as leading Kennesaw State scorer Tyler Hooker stuck a triple on the other end, putting his club back ahead by one.
An Isaac Mbuyamba free throw gave the Owls a two-point lead with 26 seconds remaining, setting the stage for Perez’ heroics. The freshman tied the game with a strong left-handed take over two Owl defenders as just under 12 seconds remained on the clock. Hooker’s final three-point try could not find the mark, and the sides headed to extra time level at 70.
“Big players make big plays,” said Perez after the game, with a smile.
Perez converted on a bucket just 24 seconds into the extra period, giving the Runnin’ Bulldogs an advantage they would not relinquish. Gardner-Webb led by as many as five during the overtime period, before the home club managed to stave off its foe from the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Hooker scored 18 for the Owls, roughly right on his per-game average. Gardner-Webb made the redshirt junior from Simpsonville, South Carolina, work for those points, however, as he hit just five of 17 shots from the floor, adding seven of eight free throws.
“(We held him to) a low field-goal percentage, for sure,” said Craft. “Where he hurt us was on the foul line. He got us in the air, and really made some nice moves there. He’s a good player.”
Two other Owls scored in double figures, with both turning in double-doubles. Forward Bryson Lockley scored 15 points and snatched 11 boards, with Kosta Jankovic adding 10 and hauling in 13 rebounds.
Perez’ career-high 24 paced Gardner-Webb and all scorers. Efianayi added 21, hitting 14-of-17 from the line, despite connecting on just 3-of-10 tries from the field. The Orlando native also played the final seven-plus minutes of regulation and the overtime period without tallying his fifth foul.
“Once the game gets on the line, I’m all-in,” said Efianayi. “Whatever I’ve gotta do to help us win is what I’m gonna do.”
Laster contributed 15, grabbing seven rebounds in 34 minutes of play.
Both teams now head to Georgia. Kennesaw State returns to the floor for a Saturday afternoon home game with OVC opponent Tennessee Tech, which is slated to tip at 4:00 (Eastern). Gardner-Webb will face off with Georgia Tech in Atlanta Monday evening. That game will get underway at 7:30.
GARDNER-WEBB 81, KENNESAW STATE 77
KENNESAW STATE (1-9): Mbuyamba 4-4 1-2 9, Obineke 1-4 5-6 8, Lockley 5-11 5-7, Jankovic 5-9 0-1 10, Hooker 5-17 7-8 18, Lewis 3-8 2-4 9, Clarke 3-9 0-0 6, Spencer 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 27-64 20-28 77.
GARDNER-WEBB (7-5): Laster 7-14 0-2 15, Turner 0-1 0-0 0, Perez 8-15 6-6 24, Johnson 2-4 2-3 7, Efianayi 3-10 14-17 21, Cornwall 3-8 1-2 9, Jamison Jr. 0-2 0-0 0, Jenkins 1-1 0-0 3, Miller 0-0 0-0 0, Dufeal 1-2 0-0 3. Totals 25-57 23-30 81.
Halftime — Kennesaw State 34-28. 3-Point Goals—Kennesaw State 3-9 (Obineke 1-2, Jankovic 0-1, Hooker 1-3, Lewis 1-3), Gardner-Webb 8-21 (Laster 1-2, Perez 2-5, Johnson 1-3, Efianayi 1-6, Cornwall 2-4, Jenkins 1-1). Fouled Out — Lockley (KSU). Rebounds — Kennesaw State 45 (Jankovic 13), Gardner-Webb 32 (Laster 7). Assists — Gardner-Webb 11 (Turner 4), Kennesaw State 10 (Jankovic 4). Total Fouls — Gardner-Webb 24, Kennesaw State 23. Technical — NA. A — 1069 (3500).
Points in the Paint —Gardner-Webb 34, Kennesaw State 28. Points off Turnovers —Gardner-Webb 17, Kennesaw State 14. Second-Chance Points — Kennesaw State 21, Gardner-Webb 13. Fast Break Points — Kennesaw State 2, Gardner-Webb 2. Bench Points—Kennesaw State 17, Gardner-Webb 14.