Lancers are dancers: Longwood wins first-ever Big South championship
The scene as Longwood and Winthrop tipped off Sunday. (Photo: Big South Conference)
CHARLOTTE – Four years ago, a certain intrepid writer asked Longwood coach Griff Aldrich, “Why Longwood?” in a one-on-one conversation.
Sunday, that question was authoritatively answered.
A program that went 1-30 during its first season of Division 1 basketball in 2004-05 and endured a 15-game Big South losing streak the season before Aldrich arrived has done what some might consider turning around the Titanic.
Longwood is going dancing for the first time as a Division 1 school.
The team that has lost just once in this calendar year has its crown. Longwood hit eight of its nine first-half triples amid a scorching shooting performance, ending Winthrop’s two-year reign atop the Big South with a 79-58 victory over the Eagles in Sunday’s Big South championship game at Bojangles’ Coliseum.
“I think today was just a special performance by the Lancers,” Aldrich said. “I thought there was a real commitment to executing on both ends (of the floor).”
Aldrich also spoke of the one thing that seemed to be the game-changer for his team, which has been a high-flying offensive unit all year.
“Over the past couple of weeks, I think we’ve really taken a step defensively, where we really understood that the key to our team is to be very strong defensively. I think part of being very strong defensively is being extremely mentally tough and disciplined, and not to have mental lapses on our principles. I thought today – I’m sure we had some – but I can’t think of any. I just thought we made it really difficult for Winthrop in the first half to score.
“We talk a lot about how things snowball,” Aldrich continued. “I think that really helped our offense. I think just the mental discipline and mental toughness at the outset really helped set the tone.”
The blue-and-white-clad faithful who traveled from south central Virginia had reason to cheer early and often. Despite an early case of nerves from both sides, the Lancers wrested control on a Jesper Granlund triple from the left side at the 18:32 mark. A Drew Buggs layup on the ensuing possession sliced it to a point – only for the lead to grow. Longwood gradually led by 10, then 15, then 17, then 21. A late Kelton Talford bucket was the only thing keeping the halftime margin below 20 at 45-27.
Winthrop answered quickly out of the gate to compel a stoppage by Aldrich early in the second half. The Eagles claimed a 7-4 advantage to cut the Longwood lead to 15. Whatever Winthrop momentum that came from the run quickly disappeared, as Longwood ran its margin to 28 within four minutes. The party was on from there, with the Lancer faithful standing for the entire second half in clear anticipation of the final horn.
If the fans seemed ready to get wild, Aldrich was quite the contrast in study. As the minutes wound down – even as the inevitability of the Lancers being NCAA-bound drew closer and closer – Aldrich still seemed as intense and laser-focused as ever. He rarely cracked a smile as he continued fervently coaching – with the occasional “friendly chat” with a referee peppered in – until the final horn.
Aldrich regularly speaks of “coaching them hard” when referring to his team. His expectations are high, but no higher than what he feels his team can reach. The question begged to be asked, however: Was he enjoying any of the game’s final moments? The answer was initially met with a pause, followed by laughter from the gathered media.
“I probably am too task-oriented,” Aldrich conceded. “That’s just how I’m wired. Execution is everything to me. It’s huge. We constantly want to hold the standard of excellence. If you came to a practice in June, you’d probably see something similar.
“I think some of that is my private-sector experience shining through, in having to be on a lot. Also, getting to watch high-class organizations and individuals perform, they don’t take days off, they don’t take plays off, and they don’t take deals off. Everything is done properly and to a standard.
"I think that’s actually a big part of our culture. I tell these guys all the time that I don’t apologize for it. I want them to understand that, for you to reach your potential, this is what you have to do. I can’t ask them to do it if I’m not gonna do it.”
Guard Justin Hill also commented on his coach’s demeanor – after getting a playful warning from his coach that the team still had some practice remaining, of course.
“That keeps us focused and keeps us going. We could just say a game was over and stop playing, and they could go on a big run. We knew to stay focused and stay the course, and everything was going to fall into place.”
Then there’s the story of Isaiah Wilkins, a two-time transfer who parlayed his skill and experience into Most Valuable Player plaudits in the tournament. The senior Winston-Salem native was originally recruited by Longwood after departing Virginia Tech. That relationship paid dividends for both coach and player.
“Thank God that I found somebody like Coach Griff to come swoop me out of the transfer portal and just allow me to get with this great group of guys and win this championship,” Wilkins said after Sunday’s game. “This journey has been really good for me, and I think it was destiny for me to end up here.”
Of course, Aldrich couldn’t resist a joke.
“I remember saying I thought he’d be great in a manager role,” Aldrich quipped. “He’s just a fine young man and we just enjoyed talking to him (during the process). He’s a pleasant guy. We knew he could play.”
Wilkins scored 19 points and snared eight boards in pacing his team Sunday.
Now that the nets have come down and the trophy has been lifted, perhaps one question remains. It may, though, deserve a small rewrite.
Why not Longwood?
“I think Longwood is a special place. Longwood, when I came here, was a community that I knew and a university that I was familiar with from having gone to school nearby (at Hampden-Sydney). The more that I’ve gotten exposed not only to Longwood, but to the community of Farmville and Prince Edward, it’s a special place.
“When we recruit guys, we always say, ‘Look, if you’re looking for a big city, that’s not us.’ If you’re looking for a nurturing place that has really strong values of trying to develop – our tagline is citizen leaders – that really meshes well with who we want to be as a basketball program around developing young men,” Aldrich continued. “We don’t want this team to be about us. We want this team to be about the university and about the community, which I think is in line with Longwood’s mission of developing citizen leaders – not for us, but for society and the communities that we’ll go live in after the students graduate.
“I really believe Longwood is a special place. We have so many wonderful ingredients. We’ve got a lot of momentum. Forget the winning – the building blocks are there. It’s a great university, a great community, and great support from our president. (Longwood president Taylor Reveley) made a hare-brained notion to hire a former lawyer to be a coach. There’s been incredible support to build a sustainable program, not just have a successful team.
“That’s our goal. That’s our mission. For me, that’s a calling.”