By: Adam Barnes
While the Runnin’ Bulldogs may have started off a bit sluggish, the team ignited for a 30-2 run over nine minutes of play near the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half.
The run was highlighted by a pair of steals and transition buckets from Donta Harper, who finished the game with 13 points off of 6-of-7 shooting in just 14 minutes of play.
“Coach (Chris Holtmann) told me get in and bring a spark, bring a punch and that’s what I did,” said Harper. “I just played hard. When you play hard, a lot of things come easy.”
The 16-point margin of victory was easily the largest gap that Gardner-Webb has earned in conference play, as the other conference wins have all occurred with a six-point margin or less.
A key component of the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ success was their defense, which limited the Keydets to shooting 33.3 percent (21-of-63) from the field and 17.6 percent (6-of-34) from 3-point territory. Prior to the contest, Virginia Military Institute was ranked third in the NCAA with an average of 83.1 points per game.
Holtmann said, “We just knew that they have this reputation for shooting threes, but they drive you and spread you out and get to the free-throw line at a terrific rate. If you could take that away and contest shots you can guard them effectively.”
The victory was a sigh of relief for the Runnin’ Bulldogs, who experienced losses of five points or less in their last three outings with Liberty, High Point, and Radford. With the win, Gardner-Webb (11-16, 6-9 Big South Conference) slides into eighth position in the conference standings.
“In 16 years of coaching, this has been the hardest three weeks of my coaching career,” said Holtmann. “You know if it’s hard on you as a coach, it’s got to be hard on them as players as well. A chance for them to exhale in a 15-20 point game was well needed for them.”
In addition to Harper’s spark off the bench, the Runnin’ Bulldogs were led by senior guard Laron Buggs (10 points, seven assists), Stefon Johhnson (13 points, eight rebounds), Tashan Newsome (13 points, 13 boards).
Gardner-Webb will look to extend the momentum as they near the end of the regular season with conference tournament seeding at stake. The Runnin Bulldogs’ still have three conference games left, starting with an away game at Charleston Southern (15-10, 9-6 BSC) on Tuesday, followed by games with UNC-Asheville (19-7, 14-1 BSC) and Presbyterian (11-14, 5-10 BSC).
Said Holtmann, “We got better every day, one-percent better every day. I think the teams that can stay somewhat fresh this time of year and continue to improve, and potentially have a guy or two that has not played a significant role that might grow into a significant role I think helps you this time of year.”