ROCK HILL, S.C. – Every once in a while, sports will leave you speechless.
For those 2,321 who were in attendance for Saturday’s contest between Gardner-Webb and Winthrop – which, years from now, will probably feature 10,000 who claim to be among that number — they likely experienced that very feeling.
A game with 18 lead changes, three buzzer-beaters – each seemingly crazier than the last – a career-high for one of the game’s stars, and an administrative technical due to Gardner-Webb needing to check in a walk-on that wasn’t in the scorebook finished in the only way it could.
The burgeoning rivalry between the two schools separated by an hour featured 55 minutes of basketball on a razor-thin margin, before a three-point attempt by the Runnin’ Bulldogs finally bounced away and harmlessly into the hands of Winthrop’s Kyle Zunic. The Eagles left the floor, seemingly in equal parts celebration and relief, having secured a 99-95, triple-overtime victory at the Winthrop Coliseum Saturday night.
“That’s the thing about sports. You’re gonna win unbelievably epic games like this – and it was epic – throughout the course of your career as a player and a coach, and you’re gonna lose some games like that,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “I feel for them. I’m glad we came out on the winning side of it.”
Before the main event of the 15 extra minutes of basketball – and the multiple shots that helped create them – a fantastic undercard ensued.
Gardner-Webb (5-11, 1-3 Big South) went toe-to-toe with the conference leaders early, notching a 10-3 run to convert a one-point Winthrop advantage into a six-point Runnin’ Bulldog lead at 20-14 midway through the period. The visitors kept the lead for the remainder of the period, keeping Winthrop at arm’s length before leaving the floor with a 37-31 halftime lead.
Winthrop (10-7, 4-0) remained persistent out of the break, gradually pecking away at the interval deficit. A square-up triple from Kyle Zunic just steps from his own bench drew the game level at 44, eliciting a loud roar from the Winthrop faithful. A significant sequence returned the lead to the home side, as a missed layup on the Gardner-Webb end led to a deep Hunter Hale triple. Hale let out a roar as his side again seized a three-point margin.
The Eagles extended the lead to four, before a 7-0 Gardner-Webb run against reversed the sides’ fortunes. A back-and-forth tussle ensued, with neither team able to separate by more than a possession. Gardner-Webb surged ahead by three, before three straight DJ Burns buckets returned a three-point advantage to Winthrop.
Chandler Vaudrin knocked down a three-pointer with 1:04 remaining in regulation to give Winthrop a 69-64 lead, giving the first incorrect inkling that the game may be close to being decided. Then, Jaheam Cornwall canned a triple on the ensuing possession to cut the lead to two. Then, a jumper that would have put away the game for Winthrop would not fall, and Gardner-Webb’s Jose Perez took a feed from Cornwall and bounced home a contested layup as the buzzer sounded, necessitating the first extra period.
The next incorrect notion that the game was over came with 18 seconds remaining in the first overtime. Gardner-Webb held a six-point lead with 18 seconds remaining, but missed a free throw. Hunter Hale’s three-point attempt would not fall, but Vaudrin found the mark with his own three-point attempt off a rebound and assist from Charles Falden. Vaudrin also absorbed a foul, but the free throw was off the mark.
“We told Chan to try to make the free throw – not his strength – and it ended up working in our favor that he’s not the highest-percentage free throw shooter in the world,” said Kelsey, with a laugh.
“We were supposed to make the free throw, and I missed, so that was not planned,” added Vaudrin, also laughing.
What happened next almost defied belief.
Chase Claxton tipped the rebound to the left corner and Hale snared it, dribbled behind the three-point line, and hit a three of his own, inexplicably drawing level at 80 a game that appeared complete just seconds prior.
“I crashed (the boards), which is part of my job, too,” Hale said. “Chase ended up getting a fingertip on it, and I saw it, so I went and got it. I dribbled it out, knowing we were down three, and just took the shot, and it went in.”
Amazingly, there were still more thrills to come.
After Perez sank two free throws with nine seconds to play in the second overtime, Gardner-Webb held a three-point lead with nine seconds remaining. Vaudrin took the inbounds pass, dribbled up the floor, and pulled up several feet behind the free throw line. He then hoisted an off-balance shot, which banked in and again sent the crowd into a frenzy. Gardner-Webb was unable to connect on its final try, sending the game to a third overtime in an 88-88 tie.
“It was supposed to be a high ball screen with Ferg (forward Josh Ferguson), with Hunter trailing behind, but it all got messed up, and we only had like five seconds left,” Vaudrin recalled. “I just shot it up there, and it went in. Sometimes it banks in, just like my free throws, but it went in, so it was cool.”
The sides traded the lead to start the third overtime, before Perez crashed to the ground and a player was inserted to replace him. With eight scholarship players available to the Runnin’ Bulldogs, and three of those having fouled out, the walk-on who checked in was not part of the scorebook. This resulted in an administrative technical being assessed to Gardner-Webb.
Winthrop then stretched the lead as far as five, but the Runnin’ Bulldogs refused to fade away. A Justin Jenkins triple sliced the margin to one, but Ferguson’s bucket on the other end still left the game within one possession. Jenkins’ three-point try on the ensuing possession would not fall, though, and the latest in a line of classics between the schools drew to a close.
Hale and Vaudrin poured in 49 combined points for Winthrop, with Hale scoring 25 and Vaudrin 24. The two leading Eagle scorers respectively logged 41 and 48 minutes in the marathon affair. Burns tallied 14 for the Eagles, who shot 40 percent (32-for-80) in the contest. Claxton added 11, finishing a rebound shy of a double-double.
Perez shook off his early struggles in Big South play and recorded a career night, finishing with 35 points. The sophomore eclipsed his previous best by 10 points, putting home 11-of-17 tries from the floor and 11-of-14 from the charity stripe in 51 minutes of play. Cornwall contributed 16 for the visitors, with Eric Jamison totaling 12.
Both sides will enjoy some time to recuperate after Saturday night’s contest. Winthrop travels to Hampton to take on the Pirates Thursday night, with tip time from the Convocation Center slated for 7:00 (Eastern). Gardner-Webb will next play a week from Saturday, welcoming USC Upstate to Paul Porter Arena. That game will commence at 4:30.