Lancers claim first-ever Big South title

Published 9:12 am Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Yes it’s a dream, and yes it’s real. Longwood University’s men’s basketball team is headed to March Madness.

Lancer Nation let out a roar from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Farmville, across Southside Virginia and far beyond. Justin Hill had a smile wider than High Bridge. Courtside afterward, players’ moms and dads and even a few alums shed tears of joy. Head Coach Griff Aldrich and President W. Taylor Reveley IV, who took a huge chance and brought Aldrich to Farmville four years ago, embraced for nearly a full minute.

Then, cheered on by hundreds of Lancer fans who made the journey, they cut down the nets at Bojangles Coliseum to celebrate an emphatic 79-58 win over Winthrop University that officially made Longwood the first team to qualify for the 2022 NCAA Tournament.

Longwood finds out who it will play March 13, on NCAA Selection Sunday.

“Today just was a special performance by the Lancers,” Aldrich said. “This year’s just been incredibly special at Longwood.”

Hardly anybody in college basketball saw this coming. Not the 26-win season. Not the NCAA bid. And definitely not the absolutely dominating win over two-time defending Big South champion Winthrop that got them there.

Lancers senior guard Isaiah Wilkins had 19 points and eight rebounds, junior forward Leslie Nkereuwem added 11 and Longwood (26-6) outplayed tournament No. 2 seed Winthrop nearly from start to finish.

Wilkins, who transferred to Longwood hoping for a chance to play a big role in a big game, did just that. The 6-foot-5-inch guard played both possessed and utterly cool at both ends of the court in a heart-and-soul performance that made him the Big South Tournament MVP.

Wilkins has actually been to the NCAA Tournament before — when he played at Virginia Tech. But he said helping a place like Longwood experience March Madness for the first time would be special — and a part of his basketball career he’d never forget.

“Thank God I found somebody like Coach Griff to sweep me out of the transfer portal and allow me to play with this great group of guys and win this championship,” he said.

After jumping to a 17-6 early lead — a far cry from Saturday’s semifinal when Longwood was down 16 early — Longwood faced several Winthrop mini-runs but punched back every time. After the Eagles cut the lead to 17-10, the Lancers answered with eight points in 63 seconds — a Nate Lliteras 3-pointer and a Hill running jumper and 3-pointer spaced around two more defensive stops — to go up 25-10.

Moments later it was Wilkins’ turn to take over with a pair of powerful, driving fast-break layups 15 seconds apart, followed by a DeShaun Wade 3-pointer that extended the lead to 20 with 3:39 to go before intermission.

The Lancers were up 45-27 at the break. They shot 8-for-10 from 3-point range before halftime and had 22 points off turnovers to Winthrop’s two.

Winthrop chipped away at points in the second half, but Longwood had come too far and been through too many super-tight finishes all season to lose its cool at this point. When the Lancers forced a shot clock violation up 72-50 with 3:53 to go, Longwood supporters could feel it.

Lancer fans had grown accustomed to heart-thumping finishes this year, and against 13-time champion Winthrop, they figured it would be yet another battle. Instead, Longwood was in such total command it was able to start celebrating with several minutes to go. Even Aldrich let himself go — though not till the final minute.

The Lancer fans matched nearly in numbers — and definitely in volume — the stunned Winthrop commuters who had to travel a mere 23 miles for the final. As the clock wound down, Longwood’s supporters were deafening.

“I really believe Longwood is a special place,” said Aldrich, the fourth-year Lancer head coach who inherited a program that had never had a winning record in conference and that had finished 7-26 the year before his arrival. “We have so many wonderful ingredients. We’ve got a lot of momentum. Forget the winning. The building blocks are there, of a great university, a great community, and I do want to say incredible support from our president. Taylor Reveley had a hare-brained notion to hire a former lawyer as a coach. But there’s been incredible support to build a sustainable program, not just a successful team, and that’s our goal.”

After the grueling three-game tournament, Longwood will have to rest and prepare to likely face one of the top-10 teams in the country. But for now they’re savoring their unprecedented accomplishment.

It was an unforgettable day for Lancer Nation, and it wasn’t even done yet. Longwood’s women’s team had its own chance to make history and earn its first NCAA Tournament berth in the women’s basketball Big South championship game later Sunday night, and the team did just that, in dominant fashion.

“I don’t know if you can put it into words,” Longwood Athletics Director Michelle Meadows said. “It’s been a magical few days. Not only for our men and our women, our student-athletes and coaching staffs, but also for our fans that have come all the way down here. The energy here is just like it was in Willett Hall. It has been electric. We always talk about how these programs are not ours, they’re Longwood’s, they’re Farmville’s, they’re the Southside of Virginia’s. We want to build programs that they can be proud of, and I think we have done that.”