RADFORD, Va. – There’s something about the first time.
Players dancing. Fans celebrating. Slapping the team logo sticker on the “Ticket Punched” sign. Firing the ball into the air as the final horn sounds.
In just its second appearance in a conference championship game in Division I history – its first in the Big South – Gardner-Webb will live what star freshman Jose Perez called its “dream” just two days prior.
Forward DJ Laster turned in a Big South tournament MVP performance, pouring in a career-high 32 points on 14-for-17 shooting, while his team shot a seemingly inconceivable 70 percent in the second half. The 2018-19 Big South champion banner will hang in Paul Porter Arena, following a 76-65 Gardner-Webb victory before an announced crowd of 2,772 in Radford’s Dedmon Center.
“It’s just been a real special year. I’m really proud of them. I’m just thankful for the opportunity to coach this group of guys,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft. “It was a hard-fought win, obviously, here on the road. I’m just proud of them for pulling through.”
Radford (22-11) endured a painfully long scoreless string in the opening half, going nearly eight minutes without a bucket. Ed Polite scored at the 16:03 mark for the Highlanders, then snapped the string with a layup with 8:06 to play. The Highlanders struggled from the floor for the second game in a row, following Friday’s 24 percent first half against Charleston Southern with a 29 percent first half Sunday. Just two of Radford’s 10 tries from distance found the mark.
Gardner-Webb (23-11) shot well for much of the half, before the home side clamped down on the Runnin’ Bulldogs. Laster, who scored his team’s first eight points, finished the period with 17. Only one of Gardner-Webb’s 10 tries from three connected, as the fourth seed closed the half at 39 percent (11-for-28). Radford forced eight Gardner-Webb miscues, but could only convert them into five points.
Laster tallied 13 points in the first nine minutes of the second half, as the Runnin’ Bulldogs extended their advantage into double figures by hitting 10 of their first 13 shots. Two Donald Hicks triples in the span of 28 seconds quickly awakened the crowd, however, and sliced the margin in half.
Following a Gardner-Webb timeout, the Runnin’ Bulldogs extended the margin back to 10, before Radford got a Travis Fields bucket and two Ed Polite free throws to bring the game within two possessions.
Senior David Efianayi hit just one three for Gardner-Webb on Sunday, but it could not have come at a bigger time for his club.
As the clock wound toward two minutes and the shot clock drained, Efianayi squared up and knocked down a triple that essentially put away the game. Though Radford reduced the lead to six on a Donald Hicks three-pointer with 53 seconds to play, it could draw no closer.
“We had some fight. We fought back,” said Radford coach Mike Jones. “We tried what we had tried before, which is to come out and punch them in the mouth at the beginning of the second half, but they just didn’t budge. It was an uphill battle for the rest of the game.”
What entered Efianayi’s mind as he attempted the shot?
“Just make it,” said Efianayi. “I shoot countless amounts of jumpers and threes every day in practice, so when the shot clock was winding down, I just shot it with confidence.”
As for Laster, who eclipsed his prior career-best of 25?
“I just knew I needed to play hard. I just wanted to leave my legacy on the court, and leave it all out there,” said Laster. “I just came with that mindset from the jump ball. I felt it when we were sitting down before the lineups. It was my last chance to show what I’ve got, and I think I started that from the jump (and continued) to the end.”
Laster also acknowledged a little bit of help with his performance.
“I’ve just gotta thank God, because He was with me the whole time. I just felt a presence over me as I was playing,” added Laster. “I just felt at peace. I wasn’t worried about anything. I was just worried about getting a win.”
Then, perhaps, came the understatement of the year from Laster.
“I just felt like I couldn’t miss.”
“He just dominated the paint,” said Polite of Laster. “His teammates got him the ball in good positions on the floor on the pick-and-roll. It was hard to stop him once he got hot. He gained confidence, and it was hard to take that from him once he started going.”
Jones spoke of Gardner-Webb’s success in his postgame remarks.
“I thought that Gardner-Webb was terrific today. They were locked in. They set the tone right from the beginning,” said Jones. “They established Laster right from the beginning of the game, and it was hard to shut that water off once it started running.”
Radford placed three scorers in double figures, led by Hicks’ 17. Polite contributed 15, while Carlik Jones scored 14. The Highlanders shot 41 percent (28-for-68) on the day, connecting on 55 percent of their second-half tries. Gardner-Webb limited the Highlanders to just 7-of-23 (30 percent) from distance.
Laster’s 32 came in 32 minutes, to go along with six boards from the senior from Florida. Efianayi added 15, while Jose Perez scored 11. The Runnin’ Bulldogs shot a blistering 70 percent (14-for-20) in the second half, while hitting 17-of-23 free throws in the stanza.
Radford completes its season at 22-11 and awaits its postseason destination. The Highlanders competed in the 2014 and 2015 CBI, and seem to have a good shot at returning this season.
Gardner-Webb will await its NCAA tournament destination. Pairings and game times will be announced next week on Selection Sunday.