Longwood guard Walyn Napper scored 11 points, dished seven dimes, and collected three steals in Thursday's win at Gardner-Webb. (Photo: Longwood Athletics)
BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. -- Not even a week had passed since UNC Asheville claimed the Big South regular-season title when Longwood took the floor in front of a national ESPNU audience at Gardner-Webb Thursday night. The Lancers sent notice to the rest of the Big South not to forget about last season's champs.
The Lancers placed four scorers in double figures and claimed their fifth victory in six contests, notching a 75-63 result over the Runnin' Bulldogs that secured the second seed for Longwood in next week's Big South tournament in Charlotte.
"We have been fighting for consistent -- not only effort, but competitiveness," Longwood coach Griff Aldrich said. "I actually thought we started off sluggish. We've been fighting that all year. I think over the past couple of games, there's been a renewed commitment to getting back to execution. We constantly preach that the highest form of competition is execution. That requires relentless effort, urgent focus on details, and being connected. I think you're starting to see that more."
Longwood (20-10, 12-5 Big South) started the game in a bit of a tug-of-war with Gardner-Webb. The sides traded buckets and the lead several times over the first six minutes of the game, before Jesper Granlund dropped a jumper to give Longwood a 9-8 lead. The Lancers would never again surrender the advantage.
Turnovers proved to be a key to Longwood's first-half success. The Lancers compelled 11 first-half miscues from Gardner-Webb, turning those opportunities into 13 points. Longwood took a 37-25 advantage to the locker room. Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft emphasized those turnovers as a key factor in the game.
"Unfortunately, we just didn't play smart," Craft said. "We made some mistakes out there. Our awareness wasn't good enough, and that led to some easy points from them.
"I would say to give them a lot of credit for how active and physical they were," Craft added. "I thought we just tried to force the ball into places that we didn't need to. I know we had at least three -- maybe four -- turnovers while trying to feed the post. I'm glad they're doing that, but if he's not open, we can't throw it in there. They lead the league in turnover percentage defense. It's something they do well. 11 in one half -- it's hard to overcome that. You're gonna be down 12 -- or more -- if you turn the ball over 11 times in one half."
Gardner-Webb (15-14, 10-7 Big South) refused to quietly go away, however. Playing without point guard Julien Soumaoro and wing Anthony Selden for much of the second half, the Runnin' Bulldogs made a charge to keep the game interesting. Longwood had seemed to pull away, building a lead as large as 18 on an Isaiah Wilkins triple with 11:08 remaining. The home side chipped away at the advantage, though, using a 15-5 burst to slice the lead to eight. The lead would dwindle to six, but would shrink no further.
"I thought (the team) handled it really well," Aldrich said. "We had some turnovers. We took some bad shots. Some shots that were good just didn't go in. So many teams -- if your offense isn't going, it dictates how your defense is. I think what happened is that they were able to continue to stay the course and get stops when they needed to."
"I think the push was from guys trying to play hard and not give up and just do everything they could to stay in the game," Craft said. "It just seemed like every time we got close, we couldn't capitalize. They got an offensive rebound there when we were down six. I would attribute our getting back in the game to just fighting and playing hard. I thought their defense was really impactful on us and made everything difficult.
"I thought Longwood was really good tonight and very well-prepared and well-coached. We didn't have an answer for it."
Wilkins paced the Lancers with 14 points on 4-for-11 shooting and 3-for-5 from distance, adding seven boards to his total. Forward Zac Watson added 12 and pulled in five caroms. Guards D.A. Houston and Walyn Napper teamed up for 24 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds, which garnered appreciation from Aldrich.
"Walyn -- probably like the team -- over the past three weeks has really shifted and elevated his level of focus," Aldrich said. "He's such a naturally talented player, and naturally talented players can often just get away with using their natural talents. We've been preaching to him all along that we want to couple your talent with execution. He's learned to make simple plays, and the hard plays he's clipped out. Over the past two games, he's had 12 assists and no turnovers."
"D.A.'s offensive rebound and putback -- that probably ended the game. That was huge," added Aldrich in regard to Houston's bucket that gave Longwood a 69-61 lead with 1:20 remaining. "D.A. embodies what we want our culture to be about. Every play, he's urgent. He's flying around.
"The game rewards toughness, and he's extremely tough," Aldrich continued. "Every possession, he's competing. I think the game has slowed down for him some, but probably the biggest thing that I'm proud of is that D.A. came in and has been starting for us at point since he came back from injury. His wrist is pretty banged up, and he's fighting through to do that, and doing a heck of a job."
DQ Nicholas guided Gardner-Webb with 14 points on 4-for-10 shooting. Kareem Reid added 11 points and eight boards in what will likely be his final game at Paul Porter Arena. Gardner-Webb seniors Reid, Selden, Ludovic Dufeal, Sammy Itodo, and John Roghelia were honored before the contest.
"Four of those guys have been with us for four or more years, and it's just a lot of investment, in terms of their time, sacrifice, energy, and heart and soul,' Craft said. "They've put a lot into this place and a lot into our program. I'm just very appreciative of the work they've put in and the kind of human beings they've been. They've been great people and great members of this campus, and we're gonna miss them."
Both teams resume play Saturday afternoon for the final game of the Big South regular season. Gardner-Webb travels to USC Upstate for a 3:00 tilt that will have significant bearing on the seeding scenarios for the Big South tournament. Longwood returns home for the final game in Willett Hall before the team moves to the brand-new Joan Perry Brock Center next season. Game time is at 4:30, as the second-seeded Lancers square off with league champion UNC Asheville. Both games will be streamed over ESPN+.
"We want to be trending in the right direction. It's 1 versus 2," Aldrich said. "I think it'll be an exciting day. (UNC Asheville coach) Mike (Morrell) is a good buddy of mine, as is Tim. I think the world of Tim as a coach, and of Mike. I enjoy competing against them, because it's not personal. They're great guys and have become really good friends."