BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. – When preparing for a stretch of four games in eight days, preparation and the right mindset are key.
What was Jose Perez’ mindset after the first of those four games, one might ask?
“We’ve gotta get all four. That’s what it is. We’ve gotta get all four.”
One down, three to go.
Perez led four Gardner-Webb players in double figures, as the Runnin’ Bulldogs shot 52 percent from the floor in an 83-67 win over USC Upstate Saturday at Paul Porter Arena.
“I think our team’s finally building a little confidence offensively. That’s what we’ve lacked,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft. “I just think over the last two weeks (that) we’ve been getting better, even though we lost the last two (before Saturday), and it showed tonight.”
Gardner-Webb (6-11, 2-3 Big South) never trailed in a first half it dominated. The Runnin’ Bulldogs started the game on a 10-2 run, then eventually pushed the lead as high as 19 points at 38-19 just inside the three-minute mark. Guard Jaheam Cornwall tallied 11 in the period, hitting three treys on five tries. Jose Perez helped on a quarter of Gardner-Webb’s 16 buckets in the half, while tallying six points of his own.
The home side shot north of 57 percent in the first half and limited Upstate to 42 percent. The visiting Spartans connected on just three of 11 tries from distance, while being outrebounded, 20-11.
Upstate (7-11, 2-3) utilized a 2-2-1 full-court press after made baskets to quickly slice into a lead that had ballooned to 21 after the interval. The Spartans went on a 10-2 run capped by a Dalvin White triple, reducing the Gardner-Webb advantage to 13. As Gardner-Webb adjusted to the defensive pressure, the Runnin’ Bulldogs were again able to establish some separation, pushing the lead back to 21 over the next seven minutes.
“Me and CT (fellow point guard Christian Turner) work very well on the floor together. Just breaking the press, we knew to beat our man, get up (the floor), and try not to turn the ball over,” said guard Jaheam Cornwall. “We knew they were going to press like that. We anticipated them pressing like that and doubling off the press, too.”
Upstate battled back late in the contest, capitalizing on several opportunities and pulling within 16. The Spartans could draw no closer, however, as the Runnin’ Bulldogs held off the visitors.
Gardner-Webb received significant contributions from its starters, but also saw key minutes from its bench. Forward/center Gabe Bryant was called upon to hold down the post with both of the primary post players for the Runnin’ Bulldogs battling foul trouble, and he chipped in six boards while playing solid post defense.
“He stepped up and played pretty well,” said Craft of Bryant. “Gabe’s worked hard every day. He’s prepared himself to play well. The other two guys (Ludovic Dufeal and Kareem Reid) are just a little bit ahead of him, so he hasn’t seen a lot of time, but he’s continued to practice the right way and keep himself ready. I thought he had some big minutes for us today, in both halves.”
The victory snapped a three-game losing streak for Gardner-Webb, with the three losses coming by a combined 13 points. Craft also turned his team’s focus toward the next eight days, versus the prior three games.
“We’ve kind of talked about it throughout the week that it’s one game at a time, but it’s four games in eight days. Let’s gear up to have a great eight days. All of a sudden, we can be right back in the thick of things. We need rest today, we’ll come back and practice tomorrow night, and do what we do to prepare for the next one.”
Perez led Gardner-Webb and all scorers with 19, coming off his 35-point, triple-overtime performance at Winthrop. The sophomore also dished out six assists and grabbed four boards. Eric Jamison finished a rebound shy of a double-double, scoring 18 points and hauling in nine caroms. Cornwall hit 5-of-6 from the floor, including 4-of-6 from three, to tally 15. Nate Johnson contributed 14.
Upstate also placed four in double figures. Guard Everette Hammond scored 16, despite playing just 25 minutes due to foul trouble. Guard Tommy Bruner totaled 14, while Jatayveous Watson and Bryson Mozone combined for 21 of the Spartans’ 33 points off the pine. Watson added six boards to his 11 points, while Mozone snared five misses.
Both teams will battle short turnarounds, as each will host a game Monday. Upstate hosts High Point in a 6:00 (Eastern) tip-off at the Hodge Center in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Gardner-Webb remains in Paul Porter Arena to host Hampton. That game is slated to commence at 7:00.