Lancers earn NCAA spot

Elijah Tucker had a message for his teammates Sunday. Go get it done. The redshirt sophomore from Canton, Georgia had helped Longwood get to the Big South championship game, putting up 13 points on 5 of 5 shooting in Saturday’s win against High Point. But an injury sustained late in the game kept him out of Sunday’s title fight. And so, he challenged the team to get it done. 

“What he said was, ‘go win the championship,’” Longwood center Szymon Zapala said. “We all said before the game we had to do it for him. That was our mindset from the beginning.”

And the team made sure Tucker wasn’t forgotten. When the mission was accomplished Sunday, they held his jersey up at center court. 

They had made it here the hard way. And based on how this season has gone, that seems appropriate for the Longwood Lancers, who walked out of High Point, North Carolina on Sunday as the new Big South Conference Tournament champions, having punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. 

On Feb. 7, Longwood had a 2-8 record in the Big South, struggling to close out games. But then, they started to climb back. They ended the regular season beating the top team in the conference, High Point. Then they squared up in the conference tournament and beat the No. 4 seed, Winthrop, 69-56 on Friday. The next day, Longwood handed the No. 1 seed its second loss in a week, beating High Point 80-79. Finally on Sunday, the Lancers left no doubt as they ran over the No. 2 seed, UNC Asheville, 85-59. 

“The only people who didn’t realize they were 6-10 in conference were the guys in our locker room,” Longwood Head Coach Griff Aldrich said. “They knew they were a lot better. They believed throughout. Their confidence in themselves and each other has truly been remarkable.”

SHUTTING DOWN CRITICS AND UNC ASHEVILLE

It was a game very few expected them to be in and even fewer picked them to win. The Yahoo Sports poll on Sunday had 21% of people putting Longwood as the favorites. None of that mattered, however, as the Lancers did what Aldrich had been preaching the whole season: they started out strong and finished that way. 

Throughout the year, Longwood had struggled out of the gate, rallying from behind several times. But there was no need for that on Sunday. The Lancers put up 42 points in the first half, while holding UNC Asheville to 24. They didn’t slow down in the second half either, adding another 43 while getting help from a total of 13 players who took the court. Nine of them scored and five finished in double figures, as Longwood shot an impressive 59.6% on the day. . 

But the biggest accomplishment was what they didn’t do. They didn’t let the Bulldogs score. UNC Asheville shot 38% on the day, just 22% or 5 of 22 from beyond the three-point arc. They were outrebounded, with 25 of Longwood’s 31 rebounds coming on defense. The Bulldogs were outhustled, outscored and generally ran out of the building on a Sunday when everything came together for the Lancers. 

“Just an amazing performance by the guys,” said head coach Grif Aldrich. “Our effort was tremendous. We were extremely tough. Three games in three days….. The reality is these guys, I’m not sure they couldn’t have played another 40 minutes the way they were playing. There was just a dog mentality across the board. I thought it was tremendous.”

ONE DREAM COMPLETE, ANOTHER TO COME

Michael Christmas led Longwood with 18 points, followed right behind by Szymon Zapala’s 17 points and 7 rebounds. But the driving factor, as he has been all season, was point guard Walyn Napper, who filled up the stat sheet with 10 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds, 2 steals and a block for good measure. All three players earned spots on the All-Tournament team and it was Napper taking home the Big South Tournament MVP trophy. 

“Walyn and Napper and DA have literally grabbed hold of this team and told them what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it,” Aldrich said. “The leadership you saw over the past couple of days has been phenomenal.”

When it was over, Lancers cut down the nets in the Qubein Center with students, Stampede band members, cheerleaders, faculty and staff, teary-eyed family and other glowing fans eager to celebrate after driving down to cheer in person for a team that caught fire in the final weeks of the season.

“It means everything,” Zapala said. “It’s a dream come true for me, playing in a championship game, winning, and getting a chance to play in March Madness.”

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? 

Now the team and its fans play the waiting game. Longwood will find out who and where they’ll play in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, March 17.