BOILING SPRINGS – Gardner-Webb welcomes first-place UNC Asheville to Paul Porter Arena Thursday night, with the game set to tip at 9:00 pm in front of a national television audience (ESPNU).
Thursday will also serve as senior night for standout forward Tyrell Nelson, who will play in his school-record 129th game for the Runnin' Bulldogs. He will be taking the court in Paul Porter Arena for the final time in a very successful career.
Nelson, who played high school basketball at Metrolina Christian Academy in Charlotte, is Gardner-Webb's NCAA Division I era (since 2001) leader in career points (1,606) and rebounds (835). He paces the Big South Conference in field goal percentage (55.1 percent) and is enjoying another strong overall season with averages of 13.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
The Runnin' Bulldogs (16-13, 9-7 Big South) sit alone in fourth place with two games remaining and have secured a first-round bye in the upcoming Big South Conference Championships. Coach Tim Craft's squad has won two in a row – both by double digits – entering Thursday's battle.
Point guard Laquincy Rideau is on a collision course with a record-setting finish to his sophomore season. The West Palm Beach, Fla., native leads Gardner-Webb in scoring (13.6 ppg) and is on pace to become the first player in Big South Conference history to finish a season with 150 rebounds, 150 assists and 100 steals.
The 6-foot-1, 204-pounder has already crossed one of those thresholds with 162 rebounds and needs only two more assists to reach 150 this season. He leads the Big South with 5.1 helpers per game.
Rideau's quick hands have produced an NCAA-best 90 steals, which have helped power a very effective transition game for the Runnin' Bulldogs this season. GWU averages 17.7 points off of opponents' turnovers per game this season – and 10.9 points on fast breaks per game.
The Runnin' Bulldogs moved super sixth man David Efianayi into the starting lineup in mid-January with excellent results – as the slashing wing averages 13.1 ppg to rank second on the team's stat sheet along with Nelson.
That hasn't dampened Gardner-Webb's productivity off the bench, with current reserves Liam O'Reilly (7.8 ppg), D.J. Laster (7.3 ppg) and Brandon Miller (5.5 ppg) stepping up to help the Runnin' Bulldogs average 28.2 bench points per game – good for a +9.4 ppg edge in that category each game.
UNC Asheville (22-7, 14-2 Big South) is riding a nine-game win streak and sits by itself in first place – with hosting rights for the upcoming league tournament providing plenty of incentive over the final two games.
The league's 2016 champion and NCAA Tournament participant lost two key contributors from last season's squad, but hasn't missed a beat. Led by All-Big South wing Ahmad Thomas, the Bulldogs score and defend at a very high level – ranking second in the conference in both categories. Asheville paces the circuit in average margin of victory (+9.9 ppg), three-point field goal percentage (40.5%), assists (15.7), steals (9.6), turnover margin (+5.3) and assist/turnover ratio (+1.4).
Thomas has been a warrior throughout the season, leading Asheville in scoring (17.3 ppg), rebounding (6.6 rpg) and blocked shots (13). His 89 steals rank second nationally – just a hair behind Rideau – one season after pacing the Big South in that category.
Guard MaCio Teague (15.8 ppg) is the likely Big South Conference Freshman of the Year and the honor would be well deserved. The Ohioan is shooting a blistering 45.9 percent from long range and has added 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game – as well as leading Asheville with 34.1 minutes per game.
Veteran Kevin Vannatta has excelled as a setup man this season (3.4 apg), but is also scoring at an 8.9 ppg clip. Sharpshooter David Robertson (8.2 ppg) is nearly automatic from beyond the three-point arc, making 48.8 percent of those shots. In Big South games, Robertson is even better – shooting 51 percent from the arc (49-of-96) and supplying 11.8 points per game.
Head coach Nick McDevitt has a number of versatile pieces to work in and out of the game, with forward Alec Wnuk (7.4 ppg), guard Raekwon Miller (6.6 ppg) and forward Will Weeks (6.5 ppg) the top reserves currently on the stat sheet.
If history is any indicator, Thursday's game should be entertaining. The past six games between the teams at Paul Porter Arena have been decided by an average of 4.1 points per game – with Asheville taking a 92-89 win in the last meeting (February 9, 2015). Andrew Rowsey sank three free throws in that game with 3.2 seconds left for the winning margin.
In the earlier meeting this season on New Year's Even in Asheville, Gardner-Webb led 34-28 at the half – but saw the host Bulldogs heat up from long range midway through the second half to surge in front. Jamaal Robateau drained a corner three with two seconds left in regulation to tie, but Asheville held off Gardner-Webb in overtime for a 90-85 win.
Robertson was red-hot from deep in that win, making 7-of-9 threes after halftime to score all 23 of his points in the final 25 minutes of the game. Teague netted a game-high 25 points, while Thomas nearly posted a triple-double with 16 points, nine board and nine assists.
Gardner-Webb shot 50.8 percent for the game and scored 40 points in the paint. Rideau (16 points), Robateau (16 points), Efianayi (15 points) and O'Reilly (12 points) led the Runnin' Bulldogs.
The pace was quick, with each team pilfering 11 steals and combining to cough up 44 turnovers – and scoring a combined 44 points off of those miscues.
Thursday will mark Gardner-Webb's third-straight season hosting one of the Big South Conference's Thursday Night ESPNU games, and will be GWU's second appearance on ESPNU this season. The Runnin' Bulldogs knocked off Nebraska on ESPNU this past December 18.
Robert Lee and Nate Ross will handle the call on Thursday night.
For more information regarding the game, or for tickets, call Gardner-Webb athletics at (704) 406-4340.