Longwood Lancers pick up road win against Gardner-Webb

Published 12:19 am Friday, February 24, 2023

BOILING SPRINGS, NC – Rolling into March, the Longwood Lancers are playing winning basketball against the top teams battling for the Big South championship.

The Lancers haven’t looked better all season. And now, the fun really begins.

Isaiah Wilkins scored 14 points, Walyn Napper added 11 points and seven assists, and DA Houston made clutch late plays at both ends of the court as Longwood beat host Gardner-Webb 73-63 Thursday for the Lancers’ fifth win in their last six games.

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An ESPNU national television audience watched Longwood ( 20-10, 12-6 Big South) clinch a second-place regular-season finish  – and reach the 20-win mark in back-to-back seasons for the first time in University history.

It tees up a marquee matchup Saturday between the top two teams in the Big South, as Longwood hosts first-place UNC Asheville in the final game in Willett Hall.

“This team’s playing really good basketball right now,” head coach Griff Aldrich said. “We played a very good team in Gardner-Webb who will be a top-4 team in the league, and on the road from start to finish felt like we had the game somewhat under control. The exciting thing I told them is I didn’t even think we played great. I thought we played well. But there’s a whole other level we can get to.”

“That’s exciting,” Aldrich said. “You always want to play your best ball going into March. Fortunately, I think this team is doing that.”

Longwood Lancers hitting peak at the right time

Winners of five of six, there’s little doubt Longwood is peaking during a final stretch of the season where it’s been tested by some of the best of the Big South.

Playing without senior captain DeShaun Wade during the first half, Longwood’s defense and the rest of its balanced offense picked up the slack, with 10 players seeing action and nine scoring before the break. Longwood went on a 14-2 run starting just before the midway point of the first half and built a lead as high as 16 at 30-14.

The second half resembled quite a few of Longwood’s wins so far – trouble slamming the door shut with a substantial lead, but always having an answer when pushed. After falling behind by 18 points in the early minutes of the second-half, Gardner-Webb (15-14, 10-7) chipped back to within 8 points on several occasions – but key baskets by Wilkins and two straight baskets from Leslie Nkereuwem kept Longwood steady.

It got as close as six in the final minutes – but that’s when Houston took over. He hit a 3-pointer at the 3:49 mark, had a critical offensive rebound and put-back with 1:20 to go, then stole the ball from Gardner-Webb standout DQ Nichols with 57 seconds left, drawing a flagrant foul on the breakaway to clinch the win.

“DA reflects the urgency that we want,” Aldrich said. “And he has it on every play. It’s just the way the kid’s wired.”

Guard play sets the tone

Longwood’s guard play, even with Wade missing the first half Thursday, has been outstanding. Napper now has 12 assists and zero turnovers over two games including Longwood’s 73-63 win Saturday over Radford.

“We’re getting a glimpse of how dynamic he can be,” Aldrich said.

Every game’s a huge one from here on out – starting with Saturday’s regular-season finale. That will feature commemoration of Longwood’s basketball history in Willett Hall before next season’s move to the brand-new Joan Perry Brock Center. And on the court the expected sellout crowd will see a clash between the league’s two top teams certain to set the tone for a competitive Big South Tournament next week in Charlotte. Tip-off is 4:30 p.m.

“I think it’s really special,” Aldrich said. “There’s going to be a lot of people coming back who actually played there. To have that be the last game it’s really exciting. I’m excited for those people to come back and see the number 1 and number 2 in the league play each other.”

“It’s exciting for people to come back and see the end of an era, and the exciting beginning of a new era.”