(Photo: Gardner-Webb Athletics)
BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. – It could have been an all-too-familiar ending for Gardner-Webb.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs have found themselves on the bad side of three different two-point results among their seven losses in 2022-23. That number could have been four, but Gardner-Webb unleashed a frenetic comeback to eliminate an 18-point deficit with 5:36 remaining in claiming its own two-point win over North Carolina A&T.
The first time Gardner-Webb and North Carolina Central played – one week after that A&T result – NCCU dealt the Runnin’ Bulldogs another close, frustrating decision. NCCU knocked off Gardner-Webb, 58-53, at McDougald-McLendon Gymnasium in Durham.
The decision marked the last of four games in a row decided by six or fewer points – three of which resulted in Runnin’ Bulldog losses.
The Eagles and Runnin’ Bulldogs returned the home-and-home Saturday in Paul Porter Arena, and the home side led by six with 2:46 to play. Gardner-Webb thought – maybe –they might be able to breathe a bit before the final horn. That was not to be – but more on that later.
After what had to be a harrowing nearly three minutes of game action, Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft slowly advanced toward center-court, embraced NCCU coach LeVelle Moton – seemingly half out of friendship and half out of relief – and left the floor with his team having endured much more drama than he expected. By the time he arrived for his post-game media availability, the first thing he said spoke volumes.
“It feels good to be on the other side of one of those close ones,” Craft said, again almost seemingly out of total relief.
The close one to which Craft referred, a 72-70 Gardner-Webb victory over NCCU, was too close for comfort.
“We just kind of grinded away in the first half. We finished the half great,” Craft said of his team’s first-half effort, in which the Runnin’ Bulldogs took a 10-point lead to the interval after a Kareem Reid bucket with 30 seconds to play. “The second half was just kind of going back-and-forth. I really felt great about guys stepping up and making some plays to go up nine with like, two-and-a-half (minutes to play) or whatever. You feel like, okay man, we’re gonna kind of grind this thing out.”
Ah, yes. Those aforementioned minutes.
In a sequence that would have made long-time Gardner-Webb scribe Jacob Conley wince more and more with each play, NCCU chipped away. Justin Wright sank two free throws. Marque Maultsby converted a layup. Nearly 40 seconds later, Maultsby converted another layup. Craft wanted a stoppage at that point, as a six-point advantage drained away in 70 agonizing seconds.
Maybe it’s best if Craft describes those seconds.
“They switched defenses and we just fell apart. That was unfortunate,” Craft said. “We didn’t handle the 1-3-1 defense very well. Three straight turnovers and they tie it. They’ve got all the momentum.”
North Carolina Central (5-7) then took the lead a minute later, as Eric Boone converted one of his two free throw tries. Gardner-Webb (4-7) then took the ball for what would be the final time, as DQ Nicholas drove to the bucket and finished through contact, converting a layup and free throw to put his club ahead, 72-70.
After a time out, the Eagles had one final shot to deliver a familiar finish. Wright caught a pass just beyond the three-point line, started to back down Anthony Selden, but Selden compelled Wright into a contested runner that harmlessly caromed away as the horn sounded.
“I’m just happy for our guys to be able to feel what it’s like on the other side of one of those close ones. We’ve lost about five of them like that,” Craft said. “We’ve seen a lot. I do think it helps you. I think we’ve gotten better and better at executing late in the game.”
The narrative feels all too familiar for Craft and his Runnin’ Bulldog teams. Craft’s side regularly starts each season by playing what is referred to as “buy games” – taking the team on the road for games that build his program’s coffers, to be sure, but more importantly build the team’s preparation for conference play. Record aside, this looks to be the case again this season.
“It will prepare us once we get into league play. We’ve been in a lot of tough ones and played on the road a lot,” Craft said. “Those environments -- I don’t think will shake us up too much in the league.”
The Runnin’ Bulldog defense – long a calling card under Craft and his staff – again showed up Saturday, as it has for much of the season.
“I thought our activity was good. (We had) 18 turnovers forced and nine steals,” Craft said. Gardner-Webb converted those turnovers into 22 points. The defense also turned away nine NCCU shot attempts, including five by center Ludovic Dufeal.
Forward Caleb Robinson also poured in 16 points, six boards, and three steals in 23 minutes off the bench, contributing several key plays, including a wild fall-away three-pointer that he hoisted out of desperation as the shot clock neared zero.
“That was a big one. We needed a bucket,” Craft said. “We were fortunate for him to be able to make that.”
The Runnin’ Bulldogs now sit at 4-7, with one game against non-D1 Bob Jones University Monday morning remaining on the non-conference slate before league play begins Thursday, Dec. 29. Craft offered an honest assessment of where his team stands.
“I just think it’s a work in progress,” Craft said. “We’ve played pretty consistently well defensively. Offensively, we’ve been very inconsistent. This was a better game for us, when looking at our field goal percentages. We still turned over the ball too much.
“I thought our offensive rebounding was critical. We outrebounded them by nine. That part has gotten a lot better for us. We’re just gonna keep pushing forward and keep trying to find things that we do well, and we’ve made some adjustments to how we do some things here over the last couple of weeks that I thought started to pay off a little bit today. That was good to see.”