Longwood secures top seed in Big South Tournament

Published 5:14 pm Friday, February 25, 2022

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The clock ticked down on yet another nail-biter. But Longwood fans had seen this story time and again during this unforgettable season – and everyone in Willett Hall seemed to know how it would end.

A late run. A crest of deafening noise from the student section. A last-minute defensive stop to seal a 71-66 win over rival Radford.

With the win, Longwood mens basketball (22-7, 14-1) claimed its biggest milestones yet Wednesday in a record-breaking 2021-22 campaign: the Big South overall regular season championship, top seed in the Big South Tournament, and a guarantee they’ll play post-season basketball in the NIT Tournament, if not the NCAA’s March Madness.

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Justin Hill scored 18 points, Jesper Granlund had a career-high 14, and Isaiah Wilkins added 10 points and a key defensive strip in the final seconds to help secure the win as Virginia’s winningest DI basketball program finished its home schedule with 16 wins and just one non-conference loss in Willett Hall. Longwood closes out the regular season Saturday at Campbell.

January and February have been unforgettable. Now the Lancers are setting their sights on March. When they appear in the Big South Tournament starting March 4. Longwood – a dead-last 3-15 in conference four years ago in the season before head coach Griff Aldrich arrived – will be the top seed.

“It’s just phenomenal. This is a massive deal for Longwood basketball, it’s a massive transition for the university,” said Aldrich, who took the microphone after the final buzzer to thank Longwood fans for their support. “This is something that we’ve been fighting for, to try to get to, to become one of the teams that compete. To be honest in years past, we’d be in a situation where if we make a run maybe we can make some magic happen. Now we’ve flipped the script and become the top seed. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

Longwood, already the Big South’s Northern Division champion, will need to win three games in the Big South Tournament the first week in March to be assured a bid to its first ever NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. But by securing the top seed out of the regular season, Longwood is guaranteed at least a spot in the NIT tournament — another post-season tournament for which it has never before qualified.

Radford (10-17, 6-9) had won three straight. In a season full of tight conference wins, this one was no exception, and the Lancers seemed out of sorts at times, especially in the first half.

But as they have been almost without exception this year, Longwood was the tougher and sharper team down the stretch.

The final two minutes seconds seemed like a microcosm of the season – Longwood struggling at times, but hustling, pulling away, then holding on at the finish. With Longwood up 63-61, guard DA Houston had a pass slip through his hands and went crashing over the Longwood bench to save possession. It took him a full five seconds to climb back on the court. But when he did he calmly drained a 3-pointer, with 1:57 remaining, then secured a key steal at the other end – sending the Willett Hall crowd into a frenzy as the Lancers closed in on victory and the top seed.
Radford, who took Longwood to overtime in the teams’ first meeting in January, wouldn’t give up, and it took an Isaiah Wilkins strip and steal with 31 seconds left – plus a few final free throws – before Longwood’s fans could finally exhale and celebrate on the floor.

In a season when Hill, Wilkins and DeShaun Wade have been the most potent offensive weapons, Granlund stepped up to hit four 3-pointers – including two right after halftime – to give an otherwise sputtering Longwood offense some much-needed punch.

The Big South officially only proclaims North and South divisional regular season champs rather than an overall regular season champ. But by clinching the top seed, that’s what the Lancers are. Even the famously intense Aldrich said he was going to savor this accomplishment – though promised Longwood would be ready to finish its regular season schedule strong Saturday.

“I often err on the side of, ‘we did this, on to the next one,'” he said. But, “winning the North Division championship, now securing the Number 1 seed, that’s huge. We need to stop and reflect and celebrate that.”