BUIES CREEK, N.C. – It wasn’t the easiest or prettiest way to advance in a tournament, but Gardner-Webb found a way.
The fourth-seeded Runnin’ Bulldogs led by as many as 19 in the second half, before suffocating pressure from High Point knifed the advantage to an uncomfortable two points. With a little bit of luck – and some strong defense of its own – Gardner-Webb emerged victorious in the end. David Efianayi scored 25 points, including 10-of-14 free throws, to guide his side to a 75-69 victory over fifth-seeded High Point in Thursday’s fourth Big South quarterfinal.
“We were up 19, and they just fought. Credit them and their coaching staff for getting those guys to amp up their pressure and make the game close,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft. “I’m really proud of our team for the way we came out and played in that first half, and then the way we started the second half.”
Gardner-Webb (21-11) pulled away nearly from the jump, using a 9-0 run to negate the Panthers’ only lead of the contest and jump ahead by eight. The Runnin’ Bulldog lead gradually reached double figures, and held there until the interval. Gardner-Webb outscored High Point in the paint by a 22-12 margin in the first half, holding the Panthers to just 35.7 percent (10-for-28) from the field in the opening half. Just three of High Point’s 11 first-half threes found the mark.
“I thought they took it to us early,” said High Point coach Tubby Smith. “Their energy level was better. Making shots will make you play a little bit harder. I thought early in the game, that was our biggest problem. They get you back on your heels, and you’re always in a defensive mode, especially early on. I thought our kids showed a lot of toughness and a lot of heart.”
The Runnin’ Bulldog lead continued to swell in the second half, with a DJ Laster triple at the 14:15 mark giving Gardner-Webb its aforementioned 19-point margin. High Point (16-15) then employed its most powerful weapon: the 2-2-1 full-court press. The press clamped down on the Runnin’ Bulldog advantage, and the lead slowly began to evaporate.
A Jahaad Proctor trey sliced the lead to 12 two-and-a-half minutes later. A Curtis Holland triple then brought the margin back to single digits at the 9:22 mark.
Efianayi then hit a three to briefly return the lead to double figures, but the torturous dripping away of the lead continued on the next possession. Dexter Gooding drew a foul on a three-point attempt and knocked down all three free throw attempts. Proctor nailed another jumper. Ricky Madison tipped in a wayward shot.
Suddenly, the Runnin’ Bulldogs glanced at the scoreboard and saw themselves ahead by a single possession. Despite going nearly seven minutes without a basket, Gardner-Webb managed to hang around by getting to the charity stripe.
“I knew there was a stretch where we weren’t scoring, and I just wanted to stay aggressive and attack the rim, knowing that we were in the bonus,” said Efianayi. Efianayi knocked down four three throws during that stretch.
After a second half dominated by High Point’s defense, the Gardner-Webb defense came up huge when it needed to do so.
High Point trailed by only five around the two-minute mark, and had two point-blank looks at the tin. DJ Laster turned away one of those tries, while the other was deflected and would not fall. Jose Perez connected on a jumper on the ensuing possession, providing a key four-point swing for the Runnin’ Bulldogs.
After the lead was again squeezed to just two on a High Point run, Runnin’ Bulldog guard Jaheam Cornwall converted a contested layup, extending the lead back to four and providing a huge boost to his club.
“That was a big bucket for the team. We needed it,” said forward DJ Laster. “He was kind of getting a little bit frustrated, but we counted on him, and he made that big play and sealed the deal.”
Efianayi then provided the final defensive highlight of the night, swatting a late look at the bucket that snuffed out any hope of a Panther comeback.
“We feed off our defense,” said Efianayi. “I feel like if we get stops, we get our kills, the offense will come.”
High Point shot 42.1 percent on the game, hitting just over 48 percent of its second-half shots after overcoming its early struggles. Proctor contributed 25 points – 19 in the second half – on 8-for-18 shooting. Forward Ricky Madison had his second-straight great game against the Runnin’ Bulldogs, pouring in 22 points, which was just one point off his career-high point total.
Efianayi’s 25 led Gardner-Webb and all scorers. Laster added 16, while Jaheam Cornwall finished with 12. Each of the three brought down five boards.
Gardner-Webb advances to Friday night’s semifinal, where it will face top-seeded Campbell. Tip time for that contest is slated for approximately 8:30.