BUIES CREEK, N.C. – Radford has earned quite the reputation in the Big South. The Highlanders are the league’s defending champion, this season’s co-champion, and one of the programs for which every league team is gunning every time out.
Presbyterian has its sights set on being in that stratosphere. If things continue on their current course, that ascent will be a rapid one.
Radford used its championship-tested presence in the Big South’s first quarterfinal Thursday, getting four second-half triples from senior Caleb Tanner and a 21-point, nine-rebound tally from fellow senior Ed Polite Jr. in claiming an 84-76 victory over Presbyterian.
“I’m really proud of the way (my team) continued to battle all game long,” said Radford coach Mike Jones. “(That’s) a very tough team, a very well-coached team with Presbyterian, and they make it hard on you to get stops.”
That Jones statement came to the fore in the first half. Seventh-seeded Presbyterian (18-15) matched the second-seeded Highlanders punch for punch, keeping the lead for nearly nine-and-a-half minutes of the period. The Blue Hose knocked down eight threes in the half, forcing Radford to contest away from the basket. Presbyterian also maintained a 9-2 advantage on points off turnovers, limiting the damage of a 54 percent half from the field by the defending champs.
Radford (21-10) rapidly responded as the second half commenced, unleashing an 8-0 run behind five Donald Hicks points and forcing a stoppage by Presbyterian. The run proved pivotal, and both teams acknowledged its importance after the game.
“Our main conversation was basically that we need to come together. Coach had already told us we were going to hit adversity at some time in the game, so he just told us to keep our heads up. He just said (to) keep playing,” said Presbyterian guard Adam Flagler.
“Teams know (that) when they get a push, they know we’re coming right back. We don’t lay down. We’ve never been that team, and we’re never going to be that team, from here on out,” added Presbyterian forward Francois Lewis.
The Blue Hose responded and again tied the game at 46, but a 19-6 Highlander run knocked the lower seed onto its heels.
“We talked about it (regaining momentum) in the locker room. We talked about it just before the ball was inbounded (to start the second half),” said Jones. “We did not really make them feel us defensively as much as I would have liked in the first half, and I think our guys understood that. In the second half, we ramped it up a little bit … That start was huge for our confidence, and I think it certainly set the tone for the second half.”
Another Presbyterian counter was in the offing, with an 18-8 Blue Hose burst cutting the Radford lead to just one possession. Radford guard Travis Fields squared up from the perimeter and knocked down a pivotal three, just as he did in last year’s semifinal against Winthrop. The bucket extended the lead to six, and Presbyterian was never able to draw closer.
“It was definitely a big shot. When he got it, and he was open, I felt pretty sure that thing was going in,” said Jones. “That’s who he is. That’s how he’s made. We’re fortunate. We’ve got a number of guys that are made like that … We expect nothing less from him.”
Though the result was not the one for which Presbyterian coach Dustin Kerns and his team had hoped, the Blue Hose enjoyed a record-setting season, which may still continue into postseason play. A trip to the CBI or CIT would be Presbyterian’s first postseason entry in Division I, and the program’s continued development is evident from both coach and team.
“I’m certainly disappointed with the result, but I’m very proud of our team and our players and how we represent our college, and I’m proud of how we played today,” said Kerns. “They made a few more plays than us, and that’s what a veteran team does.”
“It’s been a journey,” Kerns added. “I’m certainly proud that I feel like this group has changed the narrative of our program, and they took pride in that. We’re going to keep plugging away to keep changing it. I think the perception of our program and our players has changed. I feel that. I credit those guys for taking pride in doing so.”
Lewis echoed those sentiments.
“I feel like we’ve really changed the narrative of this team,” said Lewis. “The team that we have, and the people that we have, everybody has that chip on their shoulder. We’ve all been through something. I feel as if I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder, as well, and that’s what brings that edge to this team. I feel like that’s what teams see when they play us. We all have that chip on our shoulder.”
Three Blue Hose players finished in double figures, with Flagler scoring 20 to lead Presbyterian. Lewis added 19, while guard Davon Bell tallied 11. Presbyterian shot 42.6 percent (26-for-61) in the game, but was held to just five threes in the second period.
Radford placed four scorers in double digits, with Polite’s near double-double pacing all scorers. Hicks added 16, with Carlik Jones scoring 14 and Tanner netting 12. The Highlanders shot over 53 percent in each half, finishing with a 30-for-56 (53.6 percent) effort.
The Highlanders advance to Friday’s semifinals, facing off with the winner of the second quarterfinal between third-seeded Winthrop and sixth-seeded Charleston Southern. That game is slated for a 6:00 (Eastern) tip.