A Rough Goodbye: Longwood closes Willett Hall era with loss

Published 7:57 pm Saturday, February 25, 2023

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FARMVILLE – After 43 years, the Willett Hall era of Longwood basketball finished in style — with ceremony, a sellout, and a battle between the Big South’s two top heavyweights that showed just how far Longwood basketball has come.

On the floor, regular-season champion UNC-Asheville left with a 76-66 in a hard-fought battle with second-place Longwood.

With both teams’ post-season seeds already set, it was a high-intensity battle for bragging rights and momentum. But if the Lancers keep playing well they could get another shot at the Bulldogs when it matters most: in the Big South Tournament next week in Charlotte, where the winner heads to the NCAA Tournament.

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“Credit to Asheville, they showed tonight why they won the regular season and are the Number 1 seed,” Longwood head coach Griff Adlrich said. “They continued to make play after play.”

It wasn’t the result Longwood wanted in the final game on its home court of more than four decades – but it didn’t change the fact that a full house of students, former players and alumni loudly “Packed the Hall” once last time to celebrate a program that has traveled an almost unimaginable distance since that 1980 opener for then-Division III Longwood College – a game that featured a then-unknown freshman named Jerome Kersey.

What happens to Willett Hall?

Fast forward through 43 years that saw Longwood transition to a University, Willett Hall host the 2016 U.S. Vice-President Debate, and Longwood move up to Division I, reaching its first NCAA Division I Tournament – both men and women – last season for the first time.

Next year, Longwood basketball graduates to its brand-new, state-of-the-art home arena when the Joan Perry Brock Center opens next door to Willett in the heart of campus.

And the 2023 Lancers (20-11, 12-6) are hardly done yet. Preparing for their quarterfinal game in the Big South Tournament on Friday, against the winner of the Presbyterian-Campbell first-round matchup. Longwood has proved last year’s magic was no flash in the pan, breaking the 20-win mark for consecutive years for the first time in University history.

On Saturday, Asheville had two advantages in all-but-certain Big South Player of the Year Drew Pember, and an extra day of rest heading into the game, following Longwood’s win Thursday night at Gardner-Webb.

Both made a difference. Pember managed 19 hard-earned points. And after an energetic first-half that saw the Lancers race out to a 23-10 lead, they couldn’t quite find enough fuel to keep up with the hot-shooting Bulldogs (24-7, 16-2 Big South), who hit 70 percent from the floor after halftime. Fletcher Abee added 20 to fuel Asheville’s comeback from a 38-33 halftime deficit.

Longwood never quit, battling through the final minute and trimming the lead to 7, but a late 3-pointer by Pember and a dunk by Nick McMullen with 54 seconds left sealed the win for the Bulldogs.

“I just thought we were out of sync,” Aldrich said. “I thought we started out fine, and then we started to do a little bit more one-on-on after that.”

On senior night, Isaiah Wilkins led Longwood with 17 points. DeShaun Wade and Leslie Nkereuwem added 12 each for the Lancers, who lost in the Big South for just the second time in the last two seasons on their home floor.

Building a winning culture

Longwood was 54-20 at home under in five seasons under Aldrich, building a winning culture, arguably the strongest home-court advantage in Virginia college basketball, and a fan base that filled every seat for the final two games and Willett and will now carry over to a new era in the JPB.

After beating Longwood twice, Asheville erased any doubt it was the top team in the conference during the regular season. Longwood’s focus now is on preparing for the conference tournament – where they’d love one more shot at the Bulldogs.

“We have a situation right now where we’ve got to be a team that’s consistently focused on execution,” Aldrich said. “That has to be who were are.”

Longwood honored past teams and memorable moments in Willett’s history throughout the game – and at halftime unveiled a plaque commemorating the building’s basketball history, and its hosting of the vice presidential debate, which will hang in Willett’s lobby. Willet will continue to be used as a practice facility and serve Longwood academics after the JPB opens later this year.

“It was a special day,” Aldrich said. “I’m glad a lot of fans and alumni were able to get back and celebrate not only where the program is currently but the teams from the past and the players from the past. As I’ve said before, it’s end the end of an era, or I should say the end of a chapter, and exciting chapters await.”