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Big Dance: It’s the two-step for Longwood Basketball

longwood big south title
Photo by Bill Harrigan.

This past Sunday was quite possibly the greatest day in Longwood University athletics history.

By early afternoon, the day was unfolding perfectly for Lancer Nation. The Longwood men’s basketball team had just completed a walloping of Winthrop,  79-58, to win the Big South Tournament, securing an automatic ticket to March Madness.

Later Sunday, the Longwood women’s team secured its first-ever bid to the NCAA Tournament with an 86-47 victory over Campbell. The win gave the Lancer women the Big South Tournament championship title.

Monday afternoon, fans lined the streets in Farmville, welcoming back their Big South basketball champions. They came out in their Lancer gear, made posters, and waved banners in jubilation for both teams.

The wins marked the third time in Big South history that the same institution claimed both men’s and women’s basketball titles in the same year.

Get ready for a busy March, Longwood.

For the women, the championship marked an incredible three-season turnaround under the leadership of head coach Rebecca Tillett. Tillett’s first Longwood squad finished 3-27, to conference champions in Year 3.

Tillett said Sunday’s title game was surprisingly relaxed.

“It feels like time slows down a little,” noted Tillett. “You’re just so excited for the players and the feelings they are experiencing. And then you think about all the people that have poured into this – support staff, administration, the Farmville community. It takes everybody to win a championship.”

In Sunday’s championship win, suspense was not to be found. Shortly after the 8:30 p.m. tipoff, Longwood (21-11) was already up 17-0, and at intermission led comfortably 38-13.

The Lancers enjoyed a strong contingent of fans at Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte, N.C., including the men’s team, who earlier, on the same floor, had defeated Winthrop to win the men’s title.

Tillett and Longwood men’s coach Griff Aldrich were introduced together as Longwood head coaches in 2018, and Tillett believes that’s been the key to such a unified approach for both programs.

“Not only were we introduced on the same day, but our offices are also on the same hallway. We see a lot of one another,” noted Aldrich.

While Tillett has been around women’s basketball for quite a while, it’s been a different journey for Aldrich.

Six years ago, Aldrich left his job as CFO of a private equity firm for an entry-level office position on the men’s basketball staff at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He spent two seasons at UMBC (yes, that UMBC) before accepting the head coaching job at Longwood University.

Longwood began competing in Division 1 in 2004, and until this season, had never finished with a winning record.

In 2022, the Lancers put futility behind them and then some, finishing 26-6, culminating with the Big South Tournament title and with it, a first-ever invite to the NCAA tournament.

But there’s more to Aldrich’s story.

Growing up in Virginia Beach, Aldrich attended Hampden-Sydney, just minutes away from the Longwood campus. After graduation from Hampden-Sydney, Aldrich enrolled at the University of Virginia’s law school, graduating in 1999. But instead of pursuing a law career, he returned to Hampden-Sydney for the 1999-2000 season as an assistant coach.

After just one season Aldrich took a lucrative position with a prestigious law firm in Houston.

It didn’t take long for Aldrich to advance up the corporate ladder, accepting a partnership a few years later. But Aldrich also kept a toe in basketball, grassroots basketball.

“I was an ambitious, driven person,” Aldrich said. “Achievement was, in many ways, my guide. I wasn’t sure I would be able to climb in the coaching profession. I look back and think fear of not advancing may have driven me out of coaching.”

For Tillett, her drive as head coach of the Longwood women’s program is like Aldrich’s.

“I want to succeed, for sure, but as important, I want my program to empower my players,” said Tillett. “I want my players to be confident, to be driven. I think belonging to a team helps in that journey.”

Listening to Tillett describe star player and tournament MVP Tra’Dayja Smith‘s concerns near the end of Sunday’s blowout win over Campbell, it’s evident Tillett‘s message is resonating.

“Early in the fourth quarter, when it was very obvious, we were going to win, Tra’Dayja kept looking over to the bench, pleading to get the reserves on the floor, not because she didn’t want to keep playing, but rather to allow everyone on the team to experience the euphoria,”  Tillet said proudly.

Aldrich said although the corporate world wasn’t his passion, it did provide skills that helped in his coaching profession.

“In corporate America, you’re getting to observe how different organizations operate, how they run. Those values are certainly transferable to building a program, an organization in college basketball,” Aldrich said.

A ticket to the Big Dance and hanging around might be a challenge for both Longwood programs. For Aldrich, that task may not be as daunting.

The highlight of Aldrich’s time at UMBC occurred in the 2018 NCAA tournament when the Retrievers pulled off the upset of Virginia in the first round. A week later, Aldrich was hired as the head coach at Longwood.

“I think, as much of the X’s and O’s, it was as much as organizational building that I brought to Longwood,” noted Aldrich.

So now Aldrich and Tillett wait for Selection Sunday. Both Longwood programs will undoubtingly be low seeds, but that won’t be a deterrent to either coach.

Tillett and Aldrich both understand that if an early loss should occur, it won’t define either program, rather than to continue to build and empower the Longwood brand. After all, they share more than a passion for basketball, they share a hallway as well.

Story by Scott German

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