After my last year in high school, it finally looked like the Big South would change. Gregg Marshall's Winthrop teams, which had dominated the conference for so long, had finally been overcome by the rest of the conference. After losing at the buzzer in the 2003 Big South Tournament semifinals, the Eagles would not be relevant for the first time in a while in 2004, as Liberty won the conference. It seemed that going forward that High Point under Bart Lundy and Birmingham-Southern coming out of the NAIA would be the teams to beat going forward.
But it did not turn out that way. Birmingham-Southern would fade as the money they expected from joining Division I never came, and today they are forever faded into the obscurity of Division III. And the juco transfers did not pan out for the long run for High Point, despite helping Lundy pull a quick turnaround from dreadful prior seasons. The older Panthers would turn out to have disciplinary issues that cost them from being relevant in 2005. Winthrop would dominate the conference yet again, and Gregg Marshall showed why he was still the conference's elite coach.
Lundy would get High Point back on track in 2006 with sophomore Arizona "AZ" Reid, who would go on to become the best player in recent school history. The Millis Center would become friendly grounds for the Panthers, who won nearly every game in the building...except against Winthrop.
Winthrop became even more dominant than they were in Gregg Marshall's first run from 1999 to 2002. Even when High Point was doing well, there was an inevitable feeling that it was not going to end well against Winthrop. This is similar to the experiences Kyle talked about when as a Drexel student they always got knocked out by Delaware. To me, AZ, and all other High Point people from 2004 to 2008, Winthrop was the one big thing we could not get through to become a big basketball program. I have over the years maintained a message board for High Point fans, and one of my main duties is cleaning up smac from Winthrop fans. Winthrop fans never miss a minute to talk smac, whether on the internet or in the stands. And then whenever major media outlets would talk about the conference, they would focus on Winthrop as if we were a one-team conference. It started to become a desperate goal of ours: beat Winthrop. High Point easily handled the Eagles at home in Winthrop's down year of 2004, but other than that, Winthrop games had always been a source of frustration.
In my freshman year, we were scheduled to play Winthrop on regional television in 2005. It was exciting for us to be on TV, if only on a regional digital television network that few people actually got and would fold a few years later. But Winthrop's bus company was not willing to travel during freezing rain, even though the UNC Asheville women's team had no problem making the trip to the Millis Center that day. The game was made up later without television, and Winthrop easily won 72-55. The following year, the Millis Center was sold out for the first time in a long time to see HPU play Winthrop. After trailing big early in the second half, HPU rallied to take the lead with a few minutes to play. But Winthrop took the lead back and Mike Jefferson missed a three at the buzzer that would have forced overtime as HPU lost again 70-67. In 2007, High Point had their best season ever, winning 22 games. But Winthrop also had their best season ever, going undefeated in Big South play and beating Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament. But High Point had a chance to beat the Eagles, as AZ Reid rebounded a missed Winthrop three with 10 seconds left and drove the length of the court for the win. But AZ could not make the shot he normally could make while having to move and think fast, and Winthrop won again by a score of 64-63. AZ slumped to the court and looked sad as Winthrop players tried to console him. AZ had a chance to finally beat Winthrop, and the opportunity slipped. He would only have one more chance against the dread Eagles at the Millis Center.
The 2007-08 season was supposed to be even better. Winthrop lost Craig Bradshaw and Torrell Martin, and High Point still had AZ and Mike Jefferson, who were now seniors. Marshall had finally left Winthrop as was often rumored, going to Wichita State. But Winthrop still had Chris Gaynor and Michael Jenkins, and much of HPU's depth was seriously weakened by injuries, most notably to another senior in Jerald Minnis. After Reid and Jefferson, the Panthers were mostly left with walk-ons and inexperienced players. The Panthers no longer looked like the preseason favorites in the conference that they were picked to be by one vote over Winthrop.
But the anticipation was as high as ever on January 12, 2008. Winthrop had pulled a RLU against Miami the month before, while HPU had split a home-and-home with Savannah State. But the Panthers were fired up to play Winthrop again at home. The Millis Center was sold out again, and well-known mid-major basketball writer Kyle Whelliston was in attendance. The fans and Winthrop point guard Chris Gaynor exchanged jabs at each other. It was a big-time basketball atmosphere, one not usually seen at High Point. Free black t-shirts were given to students for the first annual blackout game. The excitement for High Point basketball was at an all-time high.
The teams, like the year before, had traded baskets in the first. As the game entered the final minutes, Mike Jefferson hit clutch threes, and now a win seemed possible. But in the final minute, the Eagles came back, and it seemed like the game was going to get away again. After Winthrop closed the lead to one with seconds left, Gaynor jumped on the back of an HPU player and went for the ball. While this appeared to be a foul, the call was for a jump ball and the arrow went to WU. HPU never seemed to get any breaks in the series. But Antwon Harris' shot from 10 feet bounced off the backboard and rim, and High Point had finally beaten their nemesis, 62-61, and for the first time at HPU I could rush the court. AZ also ripped off his jersey in celebration. We had finally beaten Winthrop. The end of the game was recorded here by somebody in the stands.
Winthrop fans on the internet were appalled by our storming the floor. They rush the court all the time for winning the conference title, so why should somebody rush the court for winning the conference opener? Similar attitudes have been echoed on this website before: always wait for that special moment to rush the court. But I will argue here that this floor storming was as justified as any for a game that was not a RLU or a conference title. At Storming the Floor, it is OK to storm the floor if: "Your team breaks a long losing streak against a particularly difficult opponent." And that right there is why we stormed, not to mention that Winthrop had a conference record 22-game winning streak in Big South play entering the contest. Also there is "You beat your most hated rival in overtime, or on a last-second miracle shot." It was not in overtime or a miracle shot, but the win was dramatic and very close nonetheless. The last time HPU fans stormed the court was in 2004, when Danny Gathings did hit a miracle shot off a 70-foot inbound pass on regional television against Charleston Southern. This play was featured prominently on SportsCenter, something HPU is not regularly on.
Storming the floor is great, and should indeed be reserved for special wins such as this one. The only other time I stormed the floor was in grad school when South Carolina beat the nation's last undefeated team in Kentucky, a team in which infamous cheater John Calipari had loaded with several one-and-dones like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe. As others have mentioned, rushing the court is hot and sweaty as others are rushing into you. Trying to take pictures in it is an additional challenge in holding on to the camera as you are getting jostled. I have never played American-style football, but I bet it is a lot like a court storming non-stop.
As far as when to storm, my rules are a little different from most others who like to come up with specific rules on storming procedures. If in your four years in school you have rushed the court five times or more, you are doing it too much. Unless, of course, you have a weird tradition of storming the floor every game, which could be cool I suppose. If you never rushed the court in your four years in college, then that shows either a lack of enthusiasm or a lack of recognizing a big win. Every student deserves this special opportunity. If you don't beat your rival much and then do, rush. If you hardly ever win and somehow break a long losing streak like what NJIT had, rush. If somehow you NEVER win, you can always rush like Northwestern football fans did in the 1980s to celebrate record-breaking futility. There is always a time and place to storm.
Tonight was the four-year anniversary of this storm. And appropriately enough, High Point was playing Winthrop again. And for the fifth straight year, it was a blackout. Every fan received a free black HPU t-shirt, which I really needed since most of my other HPU shirts had either deteriorated or were ill-fitting. The enthusiasm of the crowd was ready as ever to beat the rival Eagles. The 90-minute drive has helped fuel the rivalry, although Winthrop did not bring as many fans tonight as they did in their heyday. As I walked in the lobby of the Millis Center, I saw a picture of our storming four years ago in the historical display. In the pregame entrance video, they played a clip of us rushing the court from four years ago as well. The tradition behind tonight's game had its roots from when I was in school. But things are different today. High Point and Winthrop are in the middle of the conference standings rather than at the top. Gregg Marshall had an 8-1 record all-time at the Millis Center. Randy Peele, on the other hand had going into tonight lost all four games here. It would be up to seniors Nick Barbour and Shay Shine to keep up this new tradition tonight.
I sat near the top of the Millis Center, and often had to duck or look around to see the score as the basket support in the rafters blocked my view of the scoreboard. While most of the crowd was enthusiastic, some of the fans in my section were later arriving and only seemed to be there as for the one time of the year the Millis Center was the place to be. Late-arriving students were placed upstairs as well, which created confusion between them and regular ticket holders. But everybody was rooting for the Panthers and most wore their blackout shirts that they had received.
HPU got off to a decent start, but the game became too much of a defensive Winthrop-style game. The style that Peele uses comes from Marshall and works really well at holding down opposing scores. I went to a 101-98 Division II game the night before, and it seems to me that while weaker coaches care about scoring lots of points and trying to outrun the opposition, good coaches like Peele and Marshall focus on controlling the ball and playing good fundamental defense. Peele does not have players like Bradshaw, Martin, or Gaynor anymore, but I think most coaches could learn something from watching Winthrop play. High Point had the crowd behind them and played better, yet found themselves down 28-27 at halftime.
But Scott Cherry had his Panthers play better basketball coming out in the second half, and the lead grew to ten with eight minutes left. But High Point began to have the same problems they did against Wofford, and allowed for Winthrop to tie the game with a 11-1 run by hitting open threes. Cherry called timeout, and while HPU did not score out of the timeout Cherry did get his players reorganized defensively and slowed the Eagles' momentum. Winthrop did not score again as HPU finished on a 10-0 run, winning 64-54. A group of about 20 students tried to rush the court, only to see that nobody else cared anymore about beating Winthrop. Beating Winthrop is still good, and has had dramatic moments in recent years such as Nick Barbour's game-winner at the end of double overtime last year. But the reasons that justified the court storming four years ago are no longer present, and the students looked somewhat embarrassed as they quickly walked away. The players did not take it as any bigger than any other game and shook hands with the Winthrop players and then headed to the locker room.
Hopefully someday these students will get a better opportunity to storm the court. And maybe I can storm too as a High Point fan, the way we always want to storm: after a conference championship. It's good that our conference tournament is at campus sites, as neutral sites, as I have found, have the presence of what Eric Angevine of Storming the Floor referred to as "pure and simple fascism." You tend to get this with Sports Bubble arenas such as in Charlotte in the SoCon Tourney, where Wofford fans could not celebrate with their team. My grad school South Carolina was fined $25,000 for our storm. But rushing the court is one of the best experiences any college student can have, and I am glad we did it four years ago after beating Winthrop.
at HIGH POINT 64, WINTHROP 54 01/12/2012
WINTHROP 6-11 (3-3) -- R. Middleton 5-13 3-3 15; A. Jones 2-13 3-4 8; G. Valentine 6-8 1-2 13; J. Bourne 0-1 0-0 0; J. Jerome 2-3 1-2 5; M. Morgan 1-4 0-2 2; A. Smith 3-5 0-0 8; D. Henry 1-4 0-0 3; G. Gamble 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 20-54 8-13 54. HIGH POINT 7-9 (3-3) -- C. Law 5-8 4-4 14; S. Shine 5-7 3-6 16; N. Barbour 3-7 0-0 7; B. Mikulic 3-6 2-2 11; X. Martin 0-2 5-6 5; T. Elliott 2-4 2-5 6; J. Simms 1-3 0-0 2; J. Cheek 1-2 0-0 3; D. Wallace 0-2 0-0 0; L. Harris 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-41 16-23 64.
Three-point goals: WINT 6-20 (A. Jones 1-6; G. Gamble 0-2; R. Middleton 2-4; J. Jerome 0-1; D. Henry 1-3; A. Smith 2-4), HP 8-16 (N. Barbour 1-2; J. Cheek 1-2; X. Martin 0-2; S. Shine 3-4; D. Wallace 0-1; B. Mikulic 3-5); Rebounds: WINT 23 (G. Valentine 7), HP 32 (C. Law 8); Assists: WINT 9 (A. Jones 4), HP 15 (J. Simms 5); Total Fouls -- WINT 17, HP 12; Fouled Out: WINT-None; HP-None.