Swan Song: Longwood basketball says goodbye to Willett Hall

Published 2:49 pm Thursday, February 23, 2023

FARMVILLE – It’s born witness to Longwood basketball history, Longwood University history, and American history. Now, after 40-plus years of service, Willett Hall is preparing for its swan song as home court for Longwood basketball, as the program graduates next season into the new Joan Perry Brock Center next door.

But first, there will be a packed house Saturday to celebrate history and – in an indication of just how far Longwood basketball has traveled during the Willett years – cheer on the Lancer men as they host Big South frontrunner UNC Asheville in the regular-season finale.

That matchup, the last in Willett Hall’s storied history, matches the magnitude of the day as the Lancers and Bulldogs are the top two teams in the Big South standings and the favorites to battle for the Big South Championship and an NCAA Tournament bid during the Big South Championship Tournament on March 1-5 in Charlotte, N.C. A sellout crowd of students, alumni, and fans from Farmville and well beyond is expected for a series of tributes.

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“Willett Hall’s history is wrapped up in so many ways in Longwood’s overall history and progress, and Farmville’s too,” said President W. Taylor Reveley IV. “Right now around Longwood basketball there is a culture of excellence and of community, campus and alumni support, and pride that is flourishing and helping lift up the University with it. Willett has served so well, and this great new convocation center is going to be transformational. But we will always have a special place in our heart for Willett, and it will proudly continue to serve Longwood academics and athletics in a new role for decades to come.”

Willett tells the history of Longwood basketball

Willett’s story is Longwood’s story – not just a basketball ascent through Division III, Division II and in recent years sustained excellence in Division I – but the transformation from Longwood College to Longwood University. And along the way, milestones for generations of students: convocations, student events, and even on one unforgettable evening in 1995, a concert by punk rock legends the Ramones.

Its biggest moment in the lights came on October 4, 2016, when it was the site of that year’s U.S. Vice Presidential Debate, welcoming then-Gov. Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Kaine, thousands of journalists, and tens of millions of television viewers from around the nation and globe.

When the building opened in 1980, the game of basketball looked much different. So did Longwood.

On opening day – the Lancer women hosted then-reigning national champion Old Dominion – Longwood was still competing in NCAA Division III. Longwood University was Longwood College, and college basketball’s three-point line was years away from becoming universally adopted. Jerome Kersey, whose name now adorns Longwood’s home court, was an unknown freshman who had yet to score his first collegiate points. The Town of Farmville’s population was just over 6,000, and a copy of The Farmville Herald cost a quarter.

“It’s really a special place,” said Longwood alumnus Rohn Brown ’84, who was a freshman during Willett Hall’s inaugural season and has been a dedicated spectator every decade since. “When that place is packed and the students are there and they’re noisy, it’s an extremely intimidating place to play.” 

Longwood basketball

A look at Debate Day 2016, when Willett Hall was transformed into a place that Tim Kaine and Mike Pence could hold the vice presidential debate.

Moments of basketball history

Memorable basketball moments include Longwood’s first win over a Division I opponent – as a Division II school, at that – in 1981; Kersey’s legacy-securing 27-point, 26-recount, 9-assist final home game in 1984; Carmille Barnette and Ana Litton’s matching home-court record 43-point games in 1990 and 1993; the posthumous dedication of Jerome Kersey Court in 2016; legendary women’s basketball coach Shirley Duncan’s jersey retirement in 2017; and Willett Hall’s ESPN television network debut on ESPNU in 2022.

Dedicated in 2004 in honor of former Longwood University President Dr. Henry I. Willett Jr., a figure widely admired for his pivotal leadership from 1967 to 1981, Willett Hall has served as the backdrop for a period of remarkable progress for Longwood, both athletically and institutionally. There was the transition from NCAA Division III to Division II and Division I; and the institution’s rise in prominence and its status now as a perennial top-10 public university in the South in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. It became a keystone of Longwood’s grounds when the construction of Brock Commons physically united a split campus.

“When it was originally built, it seated 2,500,” Brown recalled. “They had these chocolate brown bleachers with no safety rails to speak of, so it maximized a lot of space. When you got 2,500 people in there, it was crazy. You think back to the UDC game that was the ‘Battle of the All-Americans’ in 1982 and the rivalry games with Randolph-Macon, those games were packed and they were loud.” 

After challenging early years working to compete successfully in Division I starting in the 2000s, that energy has returned since 2018, when men’s head coach Griff Aldrich began, and arguably given Longwood the biggest home-court advantage in Virginia college basketball. 

Looking at Aldrich’s time with Longwood basketball

In five seasons under Coach Aldrich, Longwood’s men are 54-19 at home. They’ve won 28 of their past 31 home games overall, and are 16-1 in the Big South over the past two seasons, including last year’s run to the Big South Title and their first NCAA March Madness appearance. Longwood’s women, who also reached the NCAA Division I Tournament for the first time last year, went into this week 25-13 at home since 2020-21.

“There’s a great level of energy,” Aldrich said after last Saturday’s 73-63 win over Radford, which moved Longwood into a tie for second-place in the Big South. “I think about where we were, four or five years ago. Now we’re getting defense chants, the community side is packed, the students are here. It’s just a lot of fun. Hopefully a lot of fun for fans, too. When you see a group play the way they did tonight, that’s not a hard group to cheer for.”

In designing the new JPB, Longwood officials wanted to make sure that energy is infused into a top-tier new facility that will seat over 3,000 spectators, honor Longwood’s campus architecture, and serve as a community gathering place beyond basketball. Longwood officials studied other beloved college basketball arenas like Cameron Indoor Stadium and The Palestra in Philadelphia in order to replicate the sense of scale and community they create.

What happens next for Willett?

Thousands of students have known Willett for its classrooms, faculty offices and training facilities, and those roles will continue. Willett will retain a prominent role on Longwood’s campus after season’s end as an academic hub for the university’s Health, Recreation and Kinesiology (HARK) department, the athletic training hub for Longwood’s 14 varsity teams, and the state-of-the-art sports performance training facility for both basketball teams. The gym floor will be repurposed as a practice facility for both basketball teams and remain a classroom for physical education.

Making some final memories

Reveley said two memories in particular will stick with him from Willett – in addition to so many great basketball games. First was the vice presidential debate, and watching hundreds of thrilled Longwood students who had only recently learned they would have a chance to see the debate stream excitedly into the lobby of Willett to take their seats (Reveley himself gave his ticket to a student and watched with other community members on a giant screen on Stubbs Mall).

Second was the Selection Sunday watch party last March, when students and community members joined both the men’s and women’s teams in the bleachers of their home floor to find out who the teams would play in their first-ever trip to March Madness.

“There was just great joy and pride in the distance we had come,” Reveley said. “Those were both moments where Longwood was truly in the national spotlight, as we deserved to be, thanks to so much hard work by so many over many, many years.”

Tip-off for Saturday’s finale is 4:30 p.m., and it’s expected to be a raucous sellout. The contest could have major seeding implications heading into the Big South Tournament next week in Charlotte, as Longwood (19-10, 11-5 Big South) entered this week tied for second in the conference standings, with UNC-Asheville in first.

Before Willett Hall enters its next stage of life in longstanding service to Longwood University, there is one more game to play, 40 more minutes of chants and the sounds of sliding and slashing sneakers to fill the halls, and, with one last shot of Lancer magic, one more home victory for Longwood to cheer together.