I first visited the High Point University campus in the summer of 2003, when I was a rising senior in high school. I had been interested in the school when in December 2002 I had gotten mail from them, the first mail I received from a school above the Black Line. So after visiting Winthrop the day before, my parents and I parked in a space for visitors near the entrance. One HPU vice president ran over to greet us, and without an official campus visit scheduled he showed us around and had lunch with us in the Panther Commons (simply known as the Caf to HPU students) at the Slane Student Center. High Point had a much more friendly atmosphere than the other schools I visited, and most importantly they seemed to want me to attend. It seemed like a good fit, so beginning in the fall of 2004, I began my four years at High Point.
The school would change a lot in my four years, and the things that stayed the same I relished on campus. When I started, HPU, was a no-frills place, and a small school where everybody knew each other and could get around the campus easily. For better or worse, almost all of this has changed since I started. Nido Qubein, a wealthy businessman who graduated from HPU in the early 1970s, was selected around the same time I arrived to become the next school president and took office the following semester. In the seven years that have followed, Qubein has attempted to transform the campus entirely and has spurred on huge growth of the school. Yet I will always miss the small school that I first fell in love with out of high school, a university just big enough to afford a Division I basketball team. What has changed since I graduated in May 2008 could be a whole other recap in and of itself, so I will save that for a future visit later this year. This is about reconnecting with the school I knew so well just a few years ago.
Kyle once wrote about the special feeling of going back to see your old school, and how it is like going back in time to college. With the changes going on, that really isn't true at High Point. But there are many things that can spur old nostalgia. The drive from my home in South Carolina to HPU is the same stretch of rural highways that it once was, although more bypasses of small towns in North Carolina have been built since I first traveled to High Point. When I make my way around the Triad (the local name for the Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point metro area), I still know my way around even though I haven't lived here in over three years. For dinner, I went to the same mall two miles north of campus that I first rode my bicycle to as a freshman when I did not have a car. The mall has changed in some ways, as the failing mall has lost much of its food court operators and has been bought by HPU, which has been developing the two-mile stretch that leads to campus. Sometimes I go out and walk on the Greensward, the green space on campus between my old dorm, Finch Hall, and the classroom buildings. I still call it that, even though President Qubein (more widely known by his first name Nido) renamed the Greensward the International Promenade my sophomore year at HPU.
And finally I came to the Millis Center, walking from the parking lot by the old rock that gets re-painted by the Greek organizations frequently. When the Millis Center was renovated in the summer of 2008, HPU officials said it was almost like a new arena. But aside from the installation of new seats with new paint and lighting, it is the same Millis Center. The same Millis Center with a small capacity (HPU prior to the renovations claimed a capacity of 2,565, but now claims a more honest capacity of 1,750) and with an odd seating layout. Nearly 70 percent of the seating at the Millis Center is behind the basket, while some other small gyms have no seating behind the baselines. Not counting the courtside seats, there are only six rows of seats behind each sideline.
And with students gone, I got to sit in the student section. But my seat tonight was not added to the HPU student section until a growing student enrollment mandated it my senior year, and I never sat there as a student. When at HPU, sometimes a friend and I would come back the weekend before classes started, and it would always bug me to have others sitting in the student section at this time. Non-students in the student section meant we had to sit (not stand) in our assigned seats rather than standing where wanted. But tonight this setup allowed me to not sit in the balcony, like most non-season ticket holders have to do when the students are on campus.
Tonight the Panthers would play Wofford of the Southern Conference. Wofford is the two-time defending SoCon champs, but the only returning key players from those teams are starting point guard Brad Loesing and Kevin Giltner, a sharp-shooting forward who was a sixth man for those great Terrier teams. The Terriers have a winning record this season, but not convincingly so, as evidenced by narrowly escaping NAIA team UVA Wise when I last saw them play in Spartanburg a couple weeks ago. High Point had a losing record, but tonight at home, these Panthers would have a chance.
The crowd was pretty good tonight considering it was only four days before Christmas. With the students, the arena would have been close to being sold out (not a major accomplishment when you have such a small arena however). Like Presbyterian the night before, HPU's cheerleaders were absent and the pep band was diminished as well. Serving as our cheerleaders tonight was a gymnastics team of elementary school age girls. They did not do any cheers, but performed remarkably well during media timeouts and at halftime.
While HPU now is absent of players I saw play when I was in school (the last players who did graduated last season), they had many familiar faces from recent years, including all-conference selection Nick Barbour and YouTube sensation Shay Shine. All of the Panthers I recognized except for Herzegovinian Branimir Mikulic, a juco transfer. Mikulic made his presence known early, hitting threes just about as soon as the ball was tipped and pushing HPU out to a large lead. The Panthers got out to a 22-4 lead six minutes in, and while everybody celebrated I pondered if the Panthers could keep it going for 40 minutes. And sure enough, the tough Terriers came back. HPU led 40-24 at halftime, but a lead of that size did not last long in the second half. While High Point continued to score, the Terriers scored at an alarming rate. On their first 16 possessions of the second half, Wofford scored 36 points for an average of 2.25 points per possession in the first 13 minutes of the half. Kevin Giltner rolled off screens to hit numerous wide-open threes in the corner, while Loesing, who had been absent in the first half, got his game going in the second half. With five minutes to play, Wofford cut High Point's lead to four. But Wofford could not keep up and only scored at a normal rate in the final minutes, as the more athletic Panthers continued to get buckets and hit critical free throws. Giltner made his eighth three-pointer in the final seconds, but by then High Point had put away an 87-79 victory. In four Big South-SoCon matchups I have been to this year, the Big South team has won three of them and did better than expected in all four games.
It was great to connect again with my old college. After having attended grad school above the Red Line the past three years, I needed to reacquaint myself with my old school once again. And while I love games where I have no strong rooting interest, I needed to get back and root for my Panthers again. Last year in games I attended, High Point was 1-4, with the lone win coming against Division-III Ferrum. Seeing High Point beat a quality mid-major was a great experience to begin my 2011 Christmas vacation.
at HIGH POINT 87, WOFFORD 79 12/21/2011
WOFFORD 7-5 (1-1) -- K. Giltner 9-19 2-2 28; B. Loesing 5-11 4-4 17; D. Crowell 3-4 2-5 8; L. Skinner 5-6 1-2 11; J. Byrd 0-1 0-0 0; K. Cochran 3-6 0-0 7; A. Smith 4-4 0-2 8; D. Rinksalis 0-0 0-2 0; T. Wagener 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-51 9-17 79. HIGH POINT 4-7 (0-1) -- N. Barbour 7-13 9-9 26; S. Shine 6-11 2-4 16; B. Mikulic 4-6 0-0 12; C. Law 5-10 2-4 12; X. Martin 2-5 4-6 8; T. Elliott 4-5 0-0 8; J. Simms 1-1 0-0 2; D. Wallace 1-1 0-0 3; J. Cheek 0-0 0-0 0; L. Harris 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-52 17-23 87.
Three-point goals: WOFF 12-25 (K. Giltner 8-15; B. Loesing 3-5; K. Cochran 1-4; J. Byrd 0-1), HP 10-16 (N. Barbour 3-6; S. Shine 2-3; D. Wallace 1-1; B. Mikulic 4-6); Rebounds: WOFF 26 (D. Crowell 6), HP 19 (C. Law 5); Assists: WOFF 20 (L. Skinner 5), HP 20 (X. Martin 6); Total Fouls -- WOFF 22, HP 15; Fouled Out: WOFF-D. Crowell; HP-None.