Longwood players fall short in road test against UNC-Asheville

Published 6:31 pm Saturday, January 13, 2024

Less than 48 hours after playing at home on Thursday night, Longwood men’s basketball brought plenty of grit, toughness and fight on the road at UNC Asheville Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately for the Lancers (13-6, 1-3 Big South), Asheville (11-8, 3-1 Big South) made the plays late to narrowly edge the Longwood players 65-61.

For Asheville, Trent Stephney was perfect from the floor, going 3-3 from three and 6-6 from the foul line for a season-best 15 points. It was his second time this year with at least 10, which proved to be critical as the Lancer defense held the preseason Big South Player of the Year, Drew Pember, to 12 points, with most of that coming in the second half and at the foul line.

“We are on the road, we competed with less than 48 hours to prepare, and Asheville is, if not the top offensive team, one of the top offensive teams in the conference,” said Longwood Head Coach Griff Aldrich. “And we made it miserable for them. Pember had 12 points, but he was averaging 29 points [in Big South play] going into it. So I’m really proud of our guys. It’s a step forward.”

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The Lancers carried that defensive intensity to the offensive glass, an area of strength for the team during non-conference play this season. Longwood only shot .373 from the floor, Longwood gobbled up 20 offensive rebounds. That led to 17 second chance points, and it came from a variety of sources. Five players had at least two offensive boards.

Szymon Zapala, Walyn Napper and Michael Christmas all tallied 13 points, with Zapala adding 14 rebounds for his third double-double of the season. He had a team-best five offensive rebounds, and Napper added four on the offensive glass.

Longwood players challenged

“We challenged the guys—I was so disappointed in our performance Thursday, it just wasn’t Longwood basketball—so we really challenged them to play with great effort, to play with an execution focus, and to be connected,” Aldrich said. “I thought they played with great effort. I thought we were the more aggressive, competitive team tonight, and I thought we definitely had an execution focus out there. I thought we were really connected as a team. I thought the group really tried, I don’t know that we executed very well at times, but I thought there was a mindset and approach to try and execute.”

Longwood came out strong and raced out to a 9-4 lead early, but Stephney got on a roll for Asheville. He scored 12 of his 15 points in the first half as Asheville built a 29-20 lead with 2:40 to go.

Emanuel Richards hit a free throw and a jumper, Napper added a layup, and Christmas drained a three to help Longwood trim it to 33-28 at the break. Richards had eight points for the Lancers.

After halftime, Longwood’s defense elevated itself to another level, and Zapala set up shop on the block.

The junior poured in 11 points in the second half to help spur the Lancers on one end. Meanwhile, Longwood generated stops on the other end.

“I thought Szymon played really well,” Aldrich said. “He’s a terrific player. I say this, I think, every time we talk about him. He’s on his own journey, his journey of the past few years, in many ways trying to rebuild his game and his confidence. He’s a load down there, and I thought he played really well.”

Defense sparks mini-run

The defense fueled a 6-1 mini-run, and Napper tied the game at 40 apiece, and then he found Elijah Tucker on the fast break for a thunderous slam and a 42-40 lead with 14:27 to go.

From that point on, the two teams traded blows like a heavyweight fight, befitting a matchup between two teams that finished at the top of the Big South standings a season ago.

A six-point Lancer spurt gave them a 59-54 lead on Zapala’s free throw with 5:09 to play, and Napper added a layup minutes later for a 61-55 lead. However, Asheville answered over the final 3:33 of the game. The home side used an 18-footer by Nick McMullen and a layup from Greg Gantt, along with 7-10 shooting at the foul line, to whittle away the six point Lancer lead.

The Lancers had chances to tie or take the lead in the final minute, but the chances refused to go down.

 “I thought we got the shot we wanted, it just didn’t go in,” Aldrich said. “We had our chances tonight. We just didn’t make the plays down the stretch that we needed to make.”

What’s next for the Longwood players?

Longwood heads to USC Upstate on Wednesday, January 17 to wrap up a two-game road swing. Tip is set for 7 p.m., and the game will stream on ESPN+ and on the radio on WVHL 92.9 Kickin’ Country.