With the Big South tournament starting Championship Fortnight, I knew I had to get to one of the first-round games. I'd been covering the Big South the entire year, and while the winner may be destined for the Play-In Game in Dayton, I've really become quite a fan of the conference.
The conference has a good variety of teams with fast-paced, high-scoring ones such as VMI, Charleston Southern and UNC-Asheville. Conversely, there are defensive-minded, slow-paced teams such as Presbyterian, Winthrop and Gardner-Webb that seem to be in every game. There are teams with entertaining players such as Nick Barbour of High Point, who had 44 in his last game on senior night, or Jesse Sanders of Liberty, who can get a triple-double anytime he steps on the floor. The games between Campbell and Coastal Carolina may have been two of the best I've seen this year. Even lowly Radford has shown some promise with its young core.
I know I have my Big South blinders on when I say all of this, but it has been a great year getting to know each school. I've enjoyed traveling to all of the campuses this season, and I looked at Monday as being one final chance to get to a game before I went to Asheville on Wednesday for the Big South quarters and semis.
There was a bit of a problem though. I didn't know where I would be going on Monday. There was a wad of teams with similar records going into Saturday's final games. Gardner-Webb and Radford were already locked into the 9 and 10 seeds, respectively, but Winthrop, Liberty, VMI and High Point could all finish between 5 and 8. If Liberty and VMI got the 7 and 8 seeds, there'd be no first-round game for me, since that would be a five- to six-hour drive on a work day. Winthrop or High Point would be much more manageable.
With so many seeding possibilities and a convoluted tiebreaker process in the Big South, I wouldn't know the final pairings until late in the night Saturday. I was in Elon for a night game and had to make the drive home afterward. It wasn't until 1 a.m. when I stopped to watch the tail end of UFC that I found out that High Point would be hosting one of the games.
I immediately wanted to see how I could get tickets to the game, since I knew the Millis Center wasn't too big and didn't want to risk missing out. I got home around 2:30 a.m. and started scouring the High Point website. Luckily, tickets were already up for sale, so I picked my seat, and I was locked in and pretty excited I'd get to add one more game to the 800GP.
As it turned out, it was probably unnecessary for me to worry and then rush to buy a ticket. While the lower sections were very full at High Point, the general seating in the upper section behind the basket was maybe only a third full. I felt a bit foolish about being in such a hurry to get a ticket, but better that than missing out altogether.
This did not knock down my excitement level for the game. High Point and Gardner-Webb had already went to overtime in both of their previous meetings this season, so I was expecting another close one.
The first thing I noticed when I walked in the Millis Center was the inclusion of the Gardner-Webb band and cheerleaders. I forgot that since this is an official Big South tournament game that they would be making the trip. They also got pretty good treatment since they were placed right behind the basket -- the High Point student sections were pushed off to the side -- and they were at times louder than the HP fans.
The game started just how the Panthers like it when they knocked down three early 3-pointers. I feared this could turn into a blowout fast since HP did the same thing to Campbell in their last game when it led the Camels 51-17 at the half. Luckily, Gardner-Webb did as they have done all season and kept it close. Donta Harper had two easy buckets which only had HP up 11-10.
The Panthers normally would respond with a load of 3s from Barbour and Shay Shine, but underrated big man Corey Law took matters into his own hands and established a post game for HP. Law was very active on the glass and was the main offense for High Point for a long part of the first half. He is an emotional player, and I've noticed he's always yelling or jawing every time he makes a play and runs back up the floor.
Law's motor and emotions could only take HP so far though. It got the lead to 20-13 but went ice cold soon after. I don't know if I'd call it a run, but over the next six minutes the Bulldogs scored the next eight points.
HP would retake the lead before halftime, but not before some poor shooting from both squads. HP missed their final seven 3s of the half while Gardner-Webb went an abysmal 1-for-17 from downtown. At one point, I was wondering why they wouldn't just go inside where they were at least having moderate success, but they kept launching brick after brick.
The offensive struggles would continue for the Bulldogs into the second half as they kept missing jumpers. High Point was not that much better but was maintaining a six- to eight-point advantage. G-W knew it would have to make a push to avoid the end of its season and was able to get some production out of Tashan Newsome, whose late jumper had them within five with three minutes to go.
Branamir Mikulic hit a 3 on the next possession to get the lead to 53-45 for HP, but Tyler Strange hit a quick 3 for G-W. It seemed like the first 3 for the Bulldogs in forever, and it was a sign of life for them. That blip of life was flatlined in the final minutes after some Barbour free throws and a Law dunk.
Gardner-Webb ran out of time, and its season, as all in Our Game do, ended in a loss. High Point, along with VMI, advanced to the quarterfinals on Wednesday. HP gets the enviable task of playing conference regular-season champs and tourney hosts UNC-Asheville. If the Panthers play as they did tonight with the erratic shooting, it'll be tough to pull off the big upset, but stranger things have happened. Barbour could go off and send UNCA packing, though. All I know is I'll be looking forward to Wednesday and some intriguing Big South quarterfinals.
at HIGH POINT 68, GARDNER-WEBB 58 02/27/2012
GARDNER-WEBB 12-20 (6-12) -- T. Newsome 10-17 1-3 21; S. Johnson 1-3 2-2 4; L. Buggs 2-8 4-4 8; T. Strange 1-9 0-0 3; K. Hartley 2-6 0-0 5; M. Byron 2-3 0-0 4; D. Harper 2-4 0-1 4; J. Dawson 1-5 0-0 3; D. Brown 2-9 0-0 6; M. Landis 0-3 0-0 0; J. Royster 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-67 7-10 58. HIGH POINT 13-17 (8-10) -- S. Shine 4-12 2-5 11; N. Barbour 6-12 8-9 22; B. Mikulic 3-7 0-0 8; C. Law 6-9 4-9 16; D. Wallace 1-5 0-0 3; J. Cheek 0-2 0-0 0; J. Simms 2-2 4-4 8; T. Elliott 0-4 0-0 0; L. Harris 0-1 0-0 0; X. Martin 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-54 18-27 68.
Three-point goals: GWB 5-32 (J. Dawson 1-4; T. Newsome 0-4; D. Brown 2-9; L. Buggs 0-2; T. Strange 1-6; M. Landis 0-3; K. Hartley 1-4), HP 6-18 (N. Barbour 2-4; J. Cheek 0-1; S. Shine 1-4; D. Wallace 1-3; L. Harris 0-1; B. Mikulic 2-5); Rebounds: GWB 38 (T. Newsome 9), HP 40 (C. Law 11); Assists: GWB 7 (T. Newsome 3), HP 12 (S. Shine 6); Total Fouls -- GWB 18, HP 9; Fouled Out: GWB-None; HP-None.