CHARLOTTE – In four seasons at Longwood, Griff Aldrich has taken a program that went 7-26 and lost its final 15 Big South games to its first-ever Big South title game appearance. The journey has been well-chronicled – if not a bit unconventional.
A quick query about whether he’s had time to process the journey is met with a simple, “No.”
The businesslike demeanor for which Aldrich is known quickly disappears, though, replaced by his standard warm smile.
“Over the past couple of days as that anxiety has risen, I’ve really tried to just say that this has been an incredible journey here at Longwood. It’s been an incredible journey for just the blessing of being with guys like (DeShaun Wade and Justin Hill),” Aldrich said. “I coach these guys so hard and I love them to death, but I coach them hard. For them to really buy into what is we’re trying to do has been really rewarding.”
The richest reward of Aldrich’s tenure with the Lancers now waits just 40 minutes away.
Longwood (25-6) overcame the largest deficit it has toppled all season in reaching the biggest game it has played this season, eliminating a 29-14 Upstate lead to claim a 79-70 result in Saturday’s first Big South semifinal inside Bojangles’ Coliseum. The top-seeded Lancers will play for a conference crown tomorrow at noon on ESPN2.
“They were extremely impressive. They came out with real fire and fight. I didn’t think they were gonna miss – and I’m not sure they did miss – in the first ten minutes or so,” Aldrich said of his semifinal opponent. “I thought our guys quickly understood that we had to increase our level of activity, particularly on the defensive end, to try to slow them down.
“They didn’t panic. They just kept on playing one possession at a time. I’m just really proud of the character of the guys, because I think it takes toughness – certainly physically, but maybe more importantly mentally, to stay locked-in and stay principled.”
Wade, who has been on much of the journey with Aldrich, called on the experience he has accumulated in helping steady his club.
“I was telling my guys that we’ve been here before. We’ve been here plenty of times before,” Wade said. “It was maybe not that big of a lead, but we’ve been here a thousand times before. All we had to do was keep doing what we’ve been doing all year, just sticking to what we do and nobody trying to do too much. It worked out.”
Part of things “working out” for the Lancers centered around shutting down Co-Freshman of the Year Jordan Gainey. The Upstate sharpshooter finished just 3-for-16 from the deck, with only two of 11 tries from distance finding the mark. Wade reflected after the game on the effort in shutting down the Spartans’ star.
“We play team defense. I’m on him for most of the time, but that’s really about the team,” Wade said. “We try to be heavy in the gaps, contest all the shots, and make it difficult. I look at those stats and I’m just like, ‘Dang, we really did a good job on him.’ I’m not gonna take all the credit for it, but we did a really good job.”
Wade also reflected on the journey.
“Three years of work, man. Just building this – not from the ground up but coming in here and not really knowing what to expect,” Wade said. “It’s just amazing, man. I really can’t even explain it. You always think you’re gonna be here, but you don’t really ever know. For it to happen is surreal.”
Upstate associate head coach Stacey Palmore offered an outside observation of the Lancers after Saturday’s game.
“They’re a championship-level team. They’ve personified that all year,” Palmore said.
With the program – the stability – that Aldrich envisioned four years ago having been built and a championship now within the Lancers’ grasp, what’s going to be the one thing that brings a title to Farmville for the first time?
“When I think about sustainability, I really think about the culture that we’re trying to build. I think about almost more the character of the guys on our team,” Aldrich said. “That’s the special thing. It’s really fun, and I think that’s a huge ingredient to our success, that we have high-character guys.
“I can just say it’s been a rich experience thus far and I’m really just super excited to be coaching these guys.”