BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. – Several months ago, Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft gathered his team for a preseason meeting. He showed his team celebration videos from teams that won conference championships and earned NCAA bids, planting the seed with them that they could do the same.
As those same players sat in the front row of the ballroom area of Tucker Student Center Sunday, every eye was locked on the giant screen in front of them. Phones were pointed ahead, ready to capture the moment. CBS had a camera trained on the Runnin’ Bulldogs, waiting to show their reaction to the world. The thousands in the room waited, unsure whether to be excited, nervous, or both.
Then, for the first time in school history, it happened.
Gardner-Webb heard its name called as an NCAA tourney participant for the first time in the school’s Division I history, gaining the 16th seed in the South Region. The 23-11 Big South champs will face off with top-seeded Virginia Friday afternoon, with tip time just after 3:00 (Eastern).
What were those emotions like for the players and staff as the brackets were unveiled?
“I think you’re just anticipating all week that moment, to see your name on the board,” said Craft. “We didn’t have to wait long. The next bracket, we were called. (It was) just an exciting time, and just a lot of anticipation building.”
“I was just excited,” said forward DJ Laster. “I wasn’t anxious, but I was just ready for anybody that they called. When they called our name, it was just a surreal experience, and I was just happy and excited, because this could be one of my last games. I just wanna prepare myself this week with my teammates like we have all year, and compete.”
After the fanfare wore off and the confetti stopped falling, though, the reality of going back to work set in for the Runnin’ Bulldogs.
“We knew whoever we were gonna play was gonna be really good, and one of the top teams in the country. That’s something that we were obviously expecting,” said Craft. “We’re just excited to be in the tournament, and be in the field for the first time in school history, and we’ll work as hard as we can tonight to prepare our team.”
BONUS: Craft on what this means to Gardner-Webb (AUDIO)
Gardner-Webb will face the Cavaliers for the second time in school history, with the other meeting seemingly coming a lifetime ago. Virginia defeated Gardner-Webb, 72-65, in Charlottesville’s now-defunct University Hall on December 20, 2002. Though the Runnin’ Bulldogs defeated ACC foes Georgia Tech and Wake Forest on the road this season following a loss at Virginia Tech to open the season, Craft acknowledged the challenge ahead in facing the ‘Hoos.
“I think they (the wins at Wake and Georgia Tech) help us believe in ourselves that we can beat a team from a power conference,” said Craft. “I think Virginia’s probably a different animal than those two, but they were great wins. They helped us early on (to) establish some confidence in who we were as a team, and that’ll give us some confidence going forward.
“I know they’re (Virginia) really good. I know they’re really, really hard to score on,” added Craft. “Coach Bennett is kind of a coach from afar that I’ve looked at as a guy I’d like to emulate in my career. They play that pack line man-to-man defense, as we do, that (means) you’re gonna have to make some jumpers, because they’re gonna do a great job of protecting the paint. Offensively, they’re gonna grind you down late in the clock and really move the ball, and make you guard for long periods of time.”
“We’re able to score on anybody. Virginia, they’re a great team defensively and offensively, but I believe we can compete at that level, also,” said Laster.
Though the Runnin’ Bulldogs have a serious challenge against Virginia, they will have the added advantage of playing reasonably close to home. The game will be played in Columbia, South Carolina, in the Colonial Life Arena. Columbia is just over 120 miles from Boiling Springs, allowing many of the Gardner-Webb faithful who turned out for Sunday’s festivities to more easily make the trip to watch their team’s maiden voyage into March Madness.
“Columbia is probably the closest city that was available, so that’s great,” said guard David Efianayi. “I feel like we’ll have a great crowd, as well, and we’ll be ready to compete.”
“I think that’s great for our fans, to be able to get to Columbia. It’s only a couple of hours away,” added Craft. “I think that’ll be great for our players’ families, as well. A lot of them are from this part of the country. We’re thrilled about being in Columbia.”
Craft described as “amazing” the realization of the statement he made to his players that they, too, would celebrate in that same room in which he showed those videos seven months ago. He hopes his next message to his team is equally prophetic.
“You’ve just gotta tell them that we’re just playing basketball,” said Craft. “It’s gonna be a big arena, and it’s gonna be a bigger stage than we’ve ever played on, but at the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think for us to have a chance to compete, we’re gonna have to go out and play really loose, and go out and let it fly, and not be tight.”
As for Craft’s final words to his team?
“Hey man, we’ve had a great year. Let’s go out and just have fun out there. Believe in yourselves, believe in each other, and go out and let it fly.”