magazine-category: Athletics

Mad About Dancin’

Bulldogs basketball
Gardner-Webb University Men's Basketball seen at Tucker Student Center celebrating their ticket into March Madness for 2019.

Men’s Basketball Provides Opportunity for National Spotlight on GWU

When the buzzer ended the Big South Conference Championship Game on March 10, 2019, a celebration began as the Runnin’ Bulldogs Men’s Basketball Team realized, “We’re going dancin’.” The victory advanced Gardner-Webb to the NCAA Men’s Tournament for the first time in program history.

The team’s win continued a rich basketball tradition at GWU—the Runnin’ Bulldogs previously made national tournament appearances at the NJCAA, NAIA and NCAA Division II levels.

Over the next 12 days, the players, coaches, students and community seized onto the “March Madness” experience.

GWU basketball team

MARCH 10, 2019

The Big South Win

D.J. Laster scored a career-high 32 points in Gardner-Webb’s 76-65 win over defending Big South Conference champion Radford. The Runnin’ Bulldogs beat two straight higher-seeded teams in the semifinals and finals.

Even though Laster, tournament MVP, scored 32 points, it was a team effort on both sides of the ball as Gardner-Webb shot 52 percent from the field (70 percent in the second half) while holding Radford to 41 percent and outrebounding Radford 35-31.
“I just knew I needed to play really hard, go hard and leave my legacy out there on the court,” said Laster.

“So I brought that approach from the jump ball. I felt it during starting lineups, that this was my last time to show what I’ve got. So I just went hard from the jump ball to the end.”

Although students were on spring break, the team didn’t have a quiet homecoming. Later that evening, hundreds of fans greeted the Runnin’ Bulldog bus when it pulled into the parking lot at Lutz-Yelton Convocation Center. Cheers and applause erupted from the crowd as the players stepped out.

MARCH 15, 2019

Celebration Continues

student cheering at basketball gameFollowing the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ victory, the historic achievement was a trending topic nationwide on Twitter and other social media platforms. According to Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations Marc Rabb, Craft received interview requests from CBS, ESPN, “The Jim Rome Show,” and many other national outlets.

“There were so many reasons to be excited,” Gardner-Webb Vice President for Athletics Chuck Burch noted. “Not only did it give the University national attention, but it gave our students and our alumni an incredible sense of pride to be a Runnin’ Bulldog. My phone was ringing constantly with former players and other alumni saying they were coming to watch us no matter where we played (in the Big Dance). The support was incredible. Boiling Springs businesses displayed championship banners and signs with messages of congratulations and support.”

The mayor of Boiling Springs, Bill Ellis, reveled in the win because he is a GWU alumnus and athletic hall-of-famer. Ellis played basketball under legendary GWU coach Eddie Holbrook from 1971-75. Boiling Springs businesses flew championship banners and displayed signs with messages of congratulations and support.

His freshman year the team made it to the final four in the NAIA, and in his senior year they earned a spot in the nationals. Ellis maintains his support of GWU as a lifetime member of the Bulldog Club and also serves on the Board of Trustees.

group of students cheering“My dream for Gardner-Webb was always to go to the Big Dance,” Ellis reflected. “We have come real close before with other coaches, but Tim Craft got them all together. There was unity there, and they talked about it before the season started. I’ve been to practices and watched Tim coach behind the scenes. They pray together. He is building young people’s lives. He’s sincere all the way around.”

Dean of Students Sarah Currie noted that the excitement was contagious. “There was just a collective sense of joy,” Currie said. “You saw it on everybody’s face, you heard in their voices and you read it in their (social media) posts. The team’s win was a win for us all.”

One place to find that sense of joy was at The Bulldog Quik-Snak, a longtime local favorite restaurant. The words Gardner-Webb and NCAA Tournament could be heard on the lips of many red and black-clad patrons.

Roger Passmore is a longtime fan of the Runnin’ Bulldogs program. “I remember coming to watch Artis Gilmore and all those guys from the late ’60s and
(early) ’70s,” related Passmore. “They were a big deal back them. It was good to see Gardner-Webb get back to that same kind of attention.”

basketball team celebrating victory

MARCH 22, 2019

The Dance

coach speaking to teamThe Gardner-Webb men’s basketball team took on top-seed Virginia, the eventual national champion, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on March 22, 2019, in Columbia, S.C. As the players stepped onto the court, they were met with a roar of approval from Gardner-Webb fans who had made the two-hour drive from Boiling Springs and surrounding areas.

When the Runnin’ Bulldogs built as much as a 30-16 lead with just over six minutes left in the first half, that roar was deafening and sent shockwaves across the college basketball world.

“It felt like an ACC road game,” Virginia’s Kyle Guy said. “The crowd was definitely against us, and we had to overcome that.”

For coach Tim Craft and his players, the support of their fans was palpable. “Honestly I was in shock at how loud it was,” Craft said. “In all my years
of basketball, I’ve never seen or heard anything like that.”

Craft wasn’t the only one.

“I’ve been at Gardner-Webb for five years and never heard it that loud,” forward Brandon Miller said. “It really motivated us to play our best. It was a crazy experience, something I will never forget.”

Unfortunately for the more than 1,500 Gardner-Webb fans estimated to be in attendance and those watching around the world rooting for the upset,
the Runnin’ Bulldogs could not hold that lead and eventually fell 71-56.

players hugging after a victoryEven with the loss, Craft’s message to his team was to enjoy what they accomplished. “I never want any team member to be satisfied with a loss, but I want them to be proud of what they did,” Craft said. “Virginia has beaten teams in the ACC by 20. We played right with them.”

Craft explained that the success of this March Madness appearance was a celebration of community, “‘Together’ was chosen by our players as the one word that would be most important to our team’s success. The idea was that we needed every individual to commit to playing for the team and for their teammates and not for themselves.” Craft added that the success and end-result of the spotlight pouring over Gardner-Webb was nothing short of commitment and sacrifice …“by our players, our coaching staff
(and staff families), our administration, our athletic department staff, our faculty members, our student body, our alumni and our community – all working TOGETHER for many years to lead to this historical moment for Gardner-Webb.”

basketball player watching a shot
Gardner-Webb takes on UVA in the 1st round of NCAA March Madness in Columbia, SC, March 22, 2019.

APRIL 7, 2019

National Media Attention

student with mascotDespite the loss, Gardner-Webb gained national and international media attention that lasted throughout the NCAA Tournament. According to the University’s marketing division, from March 10-April 10, the total number of media mentions of GWU was 10,145. The total earned media reach was over 6 billion. Website pageviews were up 57.77%, and virtual tours of GWU increased by more than 600%.

The University and the men’s basketball team returned to the national spotlight in a CBS television special that aired on Final Four Weekend.

From March 20-23, 2019, CBS commissioned a film crew to capture the excitement, energy and mayhem of Gardner-Webb’s first men’s NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. They documented March Madness on the GWU campus through the eyes of two students, Jada Robbs, of Shelby, N.C., and Will Marvel, of Buford, Ga.

Robbs’ and Marvel’s stories were included in “CBS Four Sides of the Story, March Madness Begins,” a segment that examined the NCAA Tournament’s first week through four viewpoints (or four sides). From the student’s engagement (Gardner-Webb), to the NCAA officials, to a veteran broadcaster, to the graduate assistants of No. 7 seed Nevada, all angles were covered.

Marvel spoke about the opportunities the University has given him and its impact on his life. “I hoped people would see how special Gardner-Webb is, and ultimately, get a glimpse into how strong the future is for this university,” he said.

Robbs described what being a student at Gardner-Webb feels like. “Our school is something to take pride in,” she affirmed. “We have great people and a great community and the majority of those relationships are connected by the love of Christ.”

The CBS team immersed themselves into the GWU (and Cleveland County) lifestyle for several days. Coverage included sunrises over Lake Hollifield, classroom visits where Dr. Anthony Negbenebor dialogued about the economics of Gardner-Webb’s March Madness breakthrough, students watching tournament games in a residence hall, and a ride along with the student fans on the tournament game bus. The crew also took in Cleveland County barbecue, the regional delicacy, livermush and even experienced Boiling Springs’ staples – the Snack Shop and Bulldog Quik-Snak.

Tucker Gragg, video director for the CBS crew, was impressed by the relationship between the community and University. “It became very clear to our crew immediately that the community was at the heart of everything,” he shared. “The community rallied behind the team when they left for the game, cheered them on during the game and supported them when they returned. Each student that we met took pride in being a part of the community and an ambassador for the school. My favorite part about being on campus was the way each student/faculty member greeted each other. There were no strangers on this campus and that really helped solidify the sense of community.”

news reporter after a game

This story includes excerpts from articles written by Jacob Conley, a 2008 GWU alumnus and sports correspondent for the Shelby (N.C.) Star.

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