College Sports

History is hard: Gardner-Webb awakens from ‘dream’ after halftime, falls short of upset

UMBC got famous. Gardner-Webb got outscored 41-20 in the second half.

One year after the University of Maryland-Baltimore County became the first No. 16 seed in NCAA Tournament history to beat a No. 1 seed, No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb led that same No. 1 seeded Virginia team 36-30 at halftime in the first round of March Madness in Colonial Life Arena on Friday afternoon.

The Runnin’ Bulldogs, out of Boiling Springs, North Carolina, were making their first appearance ever in the tournament, and for 30 minutes they were the nation’s darlings. Ryan Bridges, an assistant sports information director for Gardner-Webb, was running the team’s social media accounts during the game, and it “was almost overwhelming” in the first half, he said.

The Runnin’ Bulldogs gained 250 Twitter followers during that time, and the social media mentions on Bridges’ computer monitor were moving too fast for any of the words to be readable. Bridges’ computer stalled “probably four or five times,” he said, and at one point the screen went black, seemingly just for exhaustion.

“Pretty much any mentions we got, it was like, ‘I hope your social media game is as good as UMBC’s,’ ” Bridges said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m the least creative person in the world. That’s big shoes to try to fill.’ There was some pressure trying to come up with some stuff.”

UMBC’s Twitter account, which became part of the story of the Terriers’ upset a year ago, chimed in Friday, throwing its virtual support behind Gardner-Webb. The Terriers still are remembered for what they did last year. The Runnin’ Bulldogs’ furious first 30 minutes will soon be forgotten in the greater college basketball world, covered up by the remainder of this tournament and upsets to come.

But it may never be forgotten in Boiling Springs. The school has an enrollment of 5,000. It felt like all of them came to a packed Colonial Life. The Gardner-Webb crowd size matched that of blue blood Virginia, and its volume drowned out the Cavaliers’ fans in the first half, as the Runnin’ Bulldogs never trailed and led by as many as 14 points.

At that point, Colonial Life Arena was the center of college basketball, with TVs all across the country switching to the game, and Gardner-Webb played beautifully for those first 20 minutes. Head coach Tim Craft said he didn’t address the elephant in the room at halftime, the fact that his team was 20 minutes away from history, and instead kept the talk entirely on basketball.

In the second half, Virginia, with its soon-to-be NBA lottery pick in De’Andre Hunter and more recruiting stars than Boiling Springs has stoplights, awakened and overwhelmed the Bulldogs.

“I really thought that first four minutes (of the second half) was going to be critical, whichever way it went,” Craft said. “If we were able to make a run there early, maybe we put a little pressure on them, but that didn’t happen. I thought, when they made a couple buckets and we struggled to score and had some bad offensive possessions, then we started to break down defensively. We started to give stuff up that we didn’t give up in the first half. Some of that was mental, just not responding to adversity in the way that we needed to. That was unfortunate.”

Most of the Runnin’ Bulldogs players left the court with a small smile, aware even in that moment that they had accomplished, how far they had come from being picked to finish sixth in the Big South to winning the conference tournament. The exception was Jose Perez, a freshman guard from the Bronx, New York. Perez slumped, his face stained with tears, into his locker when the media entered the locker room after the game.

“Because I couldn’t pull it out for our community,” he said. “We couldn’t pull it out as a team to get the win, make history.”

The Gardner-Webb campus felt “like Times Square” in the 11 days between when the team qualified for the tournament Friday’s game, Perez said. He very much felt the support of his teams fans on Friday and he very much wanted to do something in return for them.

History is hard, though.

“I had some ideas for second half content,” Bridges said, “but it didn’t feel appropriate after Virginia kind of took over.”

The game was the final one for three Gardner-Webb seniors.

“I could carry this on for the rest of my life, and no one can take it from me,” said Danny Miller, one of those seniors. “You can do what you want at the end of the day, but we’re conference champs, made history at Gardner-Webb, and that’s something no one can take from us, and we take pride in that. I’m going to dream about this tonight for sure.”

Josh Kendall has covered SEC football for almost 20 years. He has covered the Gamecocks since the 2010 season. Have a question? Shoot him an email or find him on Twitter, and he’ll be happy to respond.