Runnin' Bulldogs will lose 3 veterans off a 23-12 team that set several records for school
It hadn't been 30 minutes since Gardner-Webb's historic basketball season ended when sixth-year head coach Tim Craft reflected on what the season meant for the school.
"I'm just unbelievably proud of our team for, really, just our entire season," Craft said after losing 71-56 to Virginia on Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. "This hurts to lose... I'm just really proud of our group .. and what they've done for our university, for our alumni, our former players, our community.
"This run that they've been on, that we've been on, has just done so much for a lot of people in our area and that are associated with Gardner-Webb."
To be certain, Craft's Runnin' Bulldogs mobilized a community to fill the school's Tucker Center for a Selection Sunday party last week and send many of them scrambling to get tickets at the University of South Carolina's Colonial Life Arena on Friday.
It came in a season that finished with a 23-12 overall record, a first-ever Big South Conference championship and first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. It also came in a year in which Gardner-Webb won 20 regular season games and went unbeaten (13-0) at home for first time in its NCAA Division I history.
On Friday, the Runnin' Bulldogs were poised for more history against top-seeded Virginia when they twice led by 14 points in the first half and were ahead 36-30 at halftime. But Virginia, which won the ACC regular season title, made a furious comeback to end Gardner-Webb's season in front of a sellout crowd of 15,417.
That number included at least 1,500 Runnin' Bulldog fans who purchased tickets and made the two-hour trip to Columbia.
"It was a great atmosphere here," freshman guard Jose Perez said. "I just want to thank the fans for traveling from Boiling Springs down here. It's a small town. Looked like there was about a thousand people here supporting us. It was a great atmosphere."
Perez will be a key building block for the future after being named to the All-Big South Conference freshman team.
Gardner-Webb does lose three seniors, including the stars of the 76-65 win at Radford to win the Big South title — guard David Efianayi and forward D.J. Laster.
"It was a dream come true," Efianayi said of playing in the NCAA tournament.
Added Laster: "Just a great experience, something I'll never forget. It's just good that we were able to do it for the school and for the community also and I just thank God for giving us the opportunity to compete and play against the No. 1 seed."
A preseason sixth-place pick this season in the Big South coaches' poll, Gardner-Webb finished tied for third in the regular season race. Then as the No. 4 seed, the Runnin' Bulldogs won games at top-seeded Campbell and second-seeded Radford in the conference tournament to win the title and advance to the national tournament.
"It starts off with the coaches," Efianayi said of the Big South tournament title runs. "They prepared us great for both (road) games. And, as players, we just knew that if we played hard enough, we could come away with Ws."
Losing Efianayi, Laster and Brandon Miller will cost the Runnin' Bulldogs lots of experience and nearly 35 points, 11 rebounds and five assists per game.
Those who played on this year's team that are expected to return will be Perez (15.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists), redshirt sophomore Nate Johnson (9.8 point, 3.9 rebounds), redshirt junior Eric Jamison, Jr. (7.1 points, 4.3 assists), sophomore Jaheam Cornwell (6.3 points, 2.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists), junior Christian Turner (3.0 points, 1.4 rebounds), redshirt junior Justin Jenkins (2.3 points, 1.3 rebounds) and freshman Ludovic Dufeal (2.4 points, 2.3 rebounds) and Kennedy Kincaid (1.3 points, 0.3 rebounds).
Perez said having veterans like Efianayi, Laster and Miller will help him lead Gardner-Webb to future greatness.
"I've learned a ton from them," Perez said. "They're like role models, even though I don't tell them because they'll probably pick on me for that. But, yeah, I learned a lot from them on and off the court. It's been great. It's sad to see it end today though."
Richard Walker: 704-869-1843; twitter.com/jrwalk22