Longwood holds off comeback bid, picking up 18th win on the year

Published 11:24 pm Saturday, February 11, 2023

HIGH POINT, NC – Isaiah Wilkins provided the offense for Longwood early. Walyn Napper stood tall to take a key charge when the game was on the line, and DeShaun Wade shook off a cold shooting night with a huge offensive rebound and two free throws in the final seconds.

In the end, it was enough for Longwood to extend its recent dominance against Big South rival High Point – and its momentum heading into the final weeks of the season.

Wilkins led the way with 21 points as the Lancers (18-9,10-4) held off a comeback bid and spoiled yet another evening for the home crowd at the opulent Qubein Center on Saturday, beating the Panthers, 70-67, for the 11th straight time and ninth straight under Head Coach Griff Aldrich.

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“I’m really proud of this group,” Aldrich said. “Any road win is a good road win. Obviously we’d love to win by 15 or 20 or whatever, but to weather the storm from High Point  and still come out with a W, I’m really proud of them.”

Longwood winning streak continues

More importantly, Longwood now carries the momentum of a 3-game winning streak into what’s lining up as a thrilling stretch run to the regular season. Four teams are vying for the regular season crown and top-seeding in the Big South Tournament in Charlotte. In its final four regular-season contests, Longwood plays each of the other three – including home contests against Radford and UNC-Asheville in the final two games in Willett Hall.

The Lancers clinched their third straight season with at least 10 wins in the Big South, and a bye in the first round of next month’s Big South Tournament – milestones that were far out of sight for all of their Division I history until Aldrich’s arrival in 2018.

“The takeaway that I want to share and I shared with the team is this is the second most wins in school Division I history,” Aldrich said. “That’s an incredible feat, with a team that’s faced a lot of adversity all season, with departures and injuries and things of that nature. To be in a situation where we’ve got 10 conference wins and 18 wins on the year with four conference games left, this group has a lot to celebrate.”

It didn’t come easy, as the Lancers saw a 17-point lead early in the second half slip away to a one-possession game in the final minute, when the Panthers (11-15, 3-11) missed two long 3-point attempts just before the horn.

Lancers build up some experience

But for better or worse, Longwood has built up some experience in recent weeks responding to leads slipping away, and didn’t fold in the critical moments. Zac Watson had 11 second-half points, and the Lancers shot 21-of-25 from the foul line.

They faced a loud, hostile crowd and their lead had slipped to just two with 47 seconds to play when Napper drew a charge from the Panthers’ Jaden House to give Longwood possession. Wade, who finished just 2-of-9 from the field shooting, then grabbed a critical offensive rebound and hit two free throws with 16 seconds remaining to put Longwood up four.

“DeShaun Wade did not shoot the ball the way he wanted to. The guy’s the best shooter I’ve coached, they just didn’t go down tonight,” Aldrich said. “But when  it mattered he got us an offensive rebound that gave us the 4-point lead that gave us some separation and the ability to start closing out the game.”

It was a team effort, with scoring and quality minutes from nine players. Leslie Nkereuwem had 8 points and 5 rebounds, and Napper had 9.

“You win 18 games by having a team that enjoys one another and loves one another,” Aldrich said. We’ve been blessed to have over the past few years a locker room’s that’s cohesive and has pretty good chemistry. I think our chemistry is getting better.”

What happens next?

Longwood is on the road Wednesday at USC-Upstate at 7 p.m.– and a win there would set up an exhilarating stretch: home next Saturday against currently second-place Radford, at Gardner-Webb (currently tied for third with Longwood, two games out of first), then closing out the season – and the Willett Hall era – against current conference leader UNC-Asheville on February 25.

“It’s a credit to the guys,” Aldirch said. “My mind usually goes to the negative and what we want to fix. But at the same time we have to pause and say Longwood University’s basketball team is 18-9. That’s a pretty special thing and we’re going to celebrate that. This is something for us to continue to build on. It’s something that hopefully our fans and community are excited about.”