RADFORD, Va. – If one wants to see a story of perseverance, there was no need to look any further than the second game of Friday’s Big South quarterfinals.
On one hand, UNC Asheville had nearly quadrupled its win total from just a season prior, making incredible strides with one of the youngest teams in college basketball. On the other, Gardner-Webb had lost its on-court leader and Player of the Year candidate, Jose Perez, who is still not with the team while addressing personal concerns.
Oh, and there was the matter of Asheville’s suffocating pressure defense and the toll it took on both sides.
In an intense battle between two regional rivals – and two sets of Bulldogs – Gardner-Webb had the final bark. Eric Jamison recorded a double-double to pace four Gardner-Webb double-digit contributors, helping guide his club to a 72-62 victory in the Dedmon Center Thursday afternoon.
“We knew we were gonna be in for a challenge today, and we were. They gave us everything that we could handle,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft. “(I’m) proud of our guys for withstanding some adversity, and just gutting it out and gritting it out.”
Gardner-Webb (16-15) tore out to a 16-5 advantage, riding a Borgian 7-of-9 streak that created some early separation. Asheville (15-16) countered with a 15-3 burst capped by a Coty Jude triple that erased the margin over a nearly four-minute span. The remainder of the half turned into a struggle for control from both sides, with neither side able to break loose by more than a single possession. A Nate Johnson layup broke that string, giving the third-seeded Runnin’ Bulldogs a five-point advantage at the interval.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs – while happy with the halftime lead – were unsatisfied with their ability to take care of the basketball in the first half. That issue was a clear focus in the halftime conversation.
“We came in at halftime, and we knew we had to cut down on the turnovers,” stated Gardner-Webb coach Nate Johnson. “We knew we had to just play the way we play, and we got the job done.”
Sixth-seeded Asheville again surged early in the second half, utilizing a 10-2 spurt to gain a six-point lead. Gardner-Webb regained the lead on the strength of an 8-0 run, after which another back-and-forth battle ensued. The game remained a one-possession tilt until Christian Turner splashed home a jumper with 4:27 to play, and Asheville never drew closer than five points as the game wound down.
“You’ve gotta give Gardner-Webb a lot of credit. I thought they played a great game, especially after we went on a run there in the second half,” said Asheville coach Mike Morrell. “Right now, they’re the hottest team in the league, and Tim’s done an unbelievable job with that group, especially after they kind of changed their team (in) the middle of the year.”
The result Thursday did not dim the rapid turnaround made by the Bulldogs. Morrell addressed the transformation in his postgame remarks.
“I’ve got a good group. I’ve got the right guys in the locker room. Hopefully, they think they’ve got the right coach,” Morrell said, with a laugh. “I’m just so proud of them, man. We won four games last year. I think we’re second in the country right now, in terms of turnarounds … We try to find a motivating factor in everything we do. You can’t play the way we do and not (think that way).
“Moving forward, can we respond when things go our way? To me, that’s the greatest form of response that there is. We responded when things didn’t go our way last year but responding when things do go your way is probably a tougher response.”
Jamison logged 19 points and 13 boards to pace the Runnin’ Bulldogs. The senior attributed part of his performance to the urgency of the moment.
“This is my last go-around, so I’ve gotta give it all I’ve got. I don’t have (anything) else after this,” Jamison commented. “I play every game like it’s my last, so I’ve gotta go straight for it.”
Jaheam Cornwall finished just off Jamison’s pace for Gardner-Webb, scoring 16 and pulling in three boards. Johnson scored 14, while Christian Turner scored 12, grabbed four boards, and dished two helpers.
DeVon Baker topped Asheville with 18 points and five boards. Coty Jude added 16, while Lavar Batts finished with 13.
Gardner-Webb advances to Friday night’s first semifinal game, where it will do battle with No. 2 Winthrop. Tip time in the Dedmon Center is set for 6:00.