BUIES CREEK, N.C. – “We’re not defined by one game.”
This simple statement by Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan spoke volumes.
As many watched Friday’s second Big South semifinal – some possibly seeking to use Campbell’s finish in the Big South tournament to define star Chris Clemons’ legacy – they saw something quite different unfold. Fourth-seeded Gardner-Webb took the court with seemingly everything stacked against it.
A huge, incredibly supportive crowd. A Campbell team that lost just one Big South contest at home. And then, there’s the matter of Clemons and fellow star Andrew Eudy.
Runnin’ Bulldog forward DJ Laster addressed the challenge following Thursday’s quarterfinal victory over High Point.
“I feel like we should attack it like any other game,” said Laster. “I feel like we’re gonna do (well) and we’re just gonna be able to handle that pressure and not feed into the hype and just play our game. As long as we play together and stay together the whole time on the court, I feel like we’ll be fine.”
To seemingly everyone in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and beyond, a victory by Laster’s club seemed unthinkable.
Gardner-Webb will now see if it can do the unimaginable. Five Runnin’ Bulldogs finished in double figures to lead a nearly 60 percent shooting effort, propelling the school to just its second conference championship game in Division I history on the strength of a thrilling, 79-74 victory over Campbell.
“I’m really proud of our team. To come in here and win in that environment against a really good basketball team and a player like Chris, I’m just proud of our guys,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft.
Campbell (20-12) gave its revved-up home crowd exactly what it wanted to start the game, racing out to an early 10-3 advantage. Gardner-Webb countered with a 7-0 run to draw the score level, allowing both sides to settle into the battle that eventually unfolded. Another Runnin’ Bulldog burst later in the period allowed the fourth seed to spring ahead by seven, before eight straight Clemons points allowed the Camels to again surge ahead. A Cory Gensler triple gave Campbell a 40-38 advantage at the interval.
The home side continued to keep the pesky Runnin’ Bulldogs at bay, keeping the lead for nearly nine minutes of the second stanza before a Jose Perez trey again tied the game. Gensler returned fire with a three of his own, beginning a tug-of-war that lasted several minutes.
Gardner-Webb (22-11) briefly stunned the fourth-largest crowd in Gore Arena history, unleashing a 13-4 spurt that opened a ten-point lead with 3:46 to play. Campbell called a 30-second timeout to steady the waters, as the fans continued to try to will the Camels to a spot in the Sunday showcase.
In a four-year show of Chris Clemons and Andrew Eudy that has featured so many highlights, everyone had to realize there was another act to come. The next three minutes nearly stole the show.
Campbell ramped up its defensive pressure out of the stoppage, putting Gardner-Webb in a vise. Gensler knocked down a jumper, followed by a forced turnover on the inbounds play. Clemons then drove the lane, absorbed contact and converted a bucket. The free throw would not fall, but the do-it-all star converted another layup. Gensler then stole the ball, and an extended possession led to an Isaac Chatman three.
Gardner-Webb requested a timeout, with the lead having been sliced to one. The crowd reached a volume it had not reached the entire night. There was a visceral excitement. Everyone knew what was coming.
The ending, however, had been rewritten.
Perez converted a bucket on the ensuing possession, drawing a foul in the process. The free throw would not fall, leaving the lead precariously dangling at just one possession. Campbell had three looks at a bucket that would have tied the game or drawn them closer, with the last being a perfectly-shot Gensler triple that agonizingly circled out, leaving Campbell to foul and allowing Gardner-Webb to close out the contest by making all four free throw attempts on their final two possessions.
“After last night (the quarterfinal win over High Point), we’ve been stressing just stay together, stay together,” said Laster. “We called the timeout, (and) it was like, alright, we’re not gonna fold, we’re not gonna bend, we’re gonna stay together and keep this lead and keep going. That’s what we were focusing on, winning the game.”
Clemons again paced his club, tallying 23 on a 9-for-24 (3-for-14 from distance) effort under heavy pressure all night. Gensler knocked down 8-of-15 shots, including four threes, scoring 20. Chatman finished with career highs in points (18) and boards (nine).
Freshman of the Year runner-up Perez delivered a stellar performance for the Runnin’ Bulldogs, racking up 19 points and six boards in 38 minutes of play. Laster added 17, with Eric Jamison contributing 14. Jaheam Cornwall and Nate Johnson both added 10 apiece. Perez’ play proved particularly vital, as he took advantage of Campbell playing extended stretches without Eudy due to foul trouble, while buffering his club against extended outages from David Efianayi, also due to fouls.
“His (Eudy’s) presence defensively is a factor, more than those guys realize,” said Craft. “That was something we were kind of able to do when he was out, was kind of play through Jose a little bit, and he was getting baskets or fouls in the post. It (Eudy’s absence) was, I’m sure, a big factor for them. They had to do some things differently.”
“Eudy being on the bench affected us in a great way, because they were able to play zone for an extended period of the game,” said McGeehan. “We really did not have an answer for Perez today. He was terrific. He dominated the game.”
Campbell claimed an automatic bid to the NIT, by virtue of its regular-season Big South championship. Its postseason destination will be announced in the NIT selection show next Sunday evening.
Gardner-Webb will play for a conference championship for the second time in its Division I history. UCF defeated the Runnin’ Bulldogs in the 2005 Atlantic Sun championship in Nashville in the school’s only other title game appearance.
The championship game will be played in Radford University’s Dedmon Center at 1:00 (Eastern) Sunday. The game will be televised on ESPN.