Gardner-Webb guard DQ Nicholas scored 11 Saturday, including the final free throw. (Photo: Gardner-Webb Athletics)
ROCK HILL, S.C. – January 15, 2014.
Do you remember where you were that day? Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft does. It’s the most recent – and only time he and his Runnin’ Bulldogs have left the Winthrop Coliseum floor victorious. Naji Hibbert led the Runnin’ Bulldogs with 11 points on that day, taking a 56-51 decision over the Eagles.
Nine-plus years later, Craft loaded the vans and made the short trek from Boiling Springs to again do battle with his regional rival. The same things that always happen when these sides square off again did Saturday. A physical battle? Check. A shot at the end for either side to win the game? Check.
A Winthrop win? Well…
Gardner-Webb unfurled a 17-6 run – in which it held the Eagles without a field goal -- in the final 6:56 to close the game, getting seven key points from Lucas Stieber to key the burst. Still, Winthrop had a reasonably clean look from the right corner to win the game just before the horn. That shot didn’t fall, though, and – finally – Craft’s Bulldogs ended up on the winning side of the ledger in their Rock Hill house of horrors in a 63-61 decision.
It was honestly harder to tell whether Craft was excited, relieved, or both after the game.
“I think that for our staff – for me, (associate head coach) Jeremy Luther, we’ve been here nine years and our first year is the only time we won,” Craft said. “They’ve been unbelievable games over the years. To win in this building, it’s almost like you get emotional. That speaks to Winthrop’s program, and how good their program is – and has been. We’ve been pretty good, and we haven’t been able to get a win here in nine years.
“I told the players it was kind of like I heard the voices of our former players. We’ve shed a lot of tears in that locker room over the years. It was great to celebrate one. I just think it’s a great win for our team.”
Stieber, one of the “glue guys” on the Gardner-Webb roster, played a significant role in not only keying the run, but fending off the Winthrop charge. Stieber scored seven in a row during the run, first giving his side the lead it would not surrender on a three with 2:19 remaining, then turning in back-to-back buckets after Winthrop drew the game level following the triple.
“He’s played a lot of basketball over the years,” Craft said of Stieber. “I don’t know how much he’s taken the offensive load to try to make big plays like he made down the stretch. I think his passing was really effective. He had seven assists, and I think he kind of got some confidence from his passing. It led to his scoring a couple big buckets – the three and the play at the rim.
“He’s the best kind of teammate you’ll ever coach. He’s just a terrific kid. You couldn’t be happier for a guy to have success than Lucas.”
Gardner-Webb (9-11, 4-4 Big South) battled foul trouble to its post players – Kareem Reid, Ludovic Dufeal, and Ademide Badmus combined for 11 fouls – in trying to slow Winthrop star Kelton Talford. Talford turned in his usual dominant effort on the boards, but the Runnin’ Bulldogs limited the junior to just nine points on 3-for-9 shooting.
“I thought we did a great job against him,” Craft said. “His motor is relentless. He had 16 rebounds. That speaks to his motor. That kid’s become such a good player. Freshman year, sophomore year, and now junior year, where he’s one of the top scorers in our league. I thought our deal was that we wanted to try to not let him catch it as much as possible. I thought we did a pretty good job of that, especially in the first half. I’m proud of our post players. They did a nice job.”
After all of that, however, the other shoe still had a chance to drop.
Winthrop (8-13, 3-5 Big South) cut it to one on two Cory Hightower free throws with five seconds remaining. The Eagles then fouled Gardner-Webb guard DQ Nicholas. Nicholas missed the first, then hit the second to put the Runnin’ Bulldogs ahead by two. The Eagles were out of timeouts, so they were forced to quickly advance the ball up the floor. Kasen Harrison found Sin’Cere McMahon in the right corner, but McMahon’s last-second three-point try circled the rim and fell away.
“I thought about using a timeout. We had one left, but I didn’t necessarily want to give them one,” Craft said. “If he made both free throws, we were gonna foul. We have an end-of-game defense that we like right there. They did a great job, and that led to the open shot. It’ll be great to learn from, and thankfully it didn’t go in. We feel like this year everybody’s hit that shot on us. Colorado State hit one at the buzzer. We couldn’t make one against Old Dominion. Obviously, Asheville hit the deep one the other night. We haven’t seen that a lot this year. It was nice for one to rim out.”
Two Gardner-Webb scorers finished in double digits in the victory. Dufeal tallied 12 points and hauled in four caroms for the Runnin’ Bulldogs, marking his 11th career double-digit total. Nicholas added 11 in 31 minutes, pulling in five boards. The Runnin’ Bulldogs actually shot better from the field (44.4 percent) than from the line (43.5 percent) and distance (41.7 percent) in the victory. Gardner-Webb did, though, shoot 54 percent (13-for-24) in the second half despite going just 1-for-2 from three.
McMahon guided Winthrop, pacing all scorers with 19 points. McMahon hit 5-of-9 from the field and all seven of his free throws. Cory Hightower joined McMahon in doubles, adding 14. The Eagles shot 37.2 percent (16-for-43) from the field, with 5-of-17 (29.4 percent) falling from distance. Winthrop hit 24 of its 30 tries from the charity stripe.
Both clubs return to action Wednesday. Gardner-Webb returns home to battle USC Upstate, with Winthrop hosting Charleston Southern. Both games are set for 7:00 (Eastern), with streaming over ESPN+.