Longwood topples Big South unbeaten UNC Asheville, 65-55
Now nearing a return to full health as the 2020 calendar comes to a close, the Lancers made good use of their newfound depth Thursday night against Big South frontrunner UNC Asheville.
Powered by a team-high 14 points from sophomore guard Heru Bligen and a second straight 30-point effort from the bench, Longwood (2-8, 1-3 Big South) took down Big South unbeaten UNC Asheville 65-55 on New Year’s Eve in Willett Hall.
Bligen, in only his fourth game back since injury, came off the bench to lead a resurgent Lancer team by hitting 5-of-9 shots from the field and playing lockdown defense against UNC Asheville’s high-powered attack. Fellow reserves Justin Hill and Ilija Stefanovic scored eight points apiece as the once-shorthanded Lancers used a nine-man rotation to outlast the Bulldogs in their final game of 2020.
“I told the guys [after the win] we have had stretches throughout every single game where we played good basketball and we played competitive basketball,” said Longwood head coach Griff Aldrich. “Tonight was probably the first night I felt like we had a full competitive effort from start to finish, particularly on the defensive end. We out-competed them, we defended the heck out of them, and I’m really proud of how our team competed tonight.”
With the 6-4 sophomore guard Bligen returning to form and fellow guard DeShaun Wade moving into the starting lineup also in his fourth game back since injury, Longwood had eight players score at least five points. Freshman forward Jesper Granlund scored a career-high 12, while Wade added five and point guard Juan Munoz dished a team-high three assists.
Just 24 hours after UNC Asheville (4-5, 3-1 Big South) pulled away late in the second half to claim an 80-73 win in game one of the series Wednesday, the Lancers held strong to fend off another second-half surge from the Bulldogs. Longwood built a lead as large as 12 points in the second half before UNC Asheville rode the hot hand of LJ Thorpe to a 9-2 run that cut the lead to 45-42 with 11:06 to play.
However, Bligen drew a foul on Longwood’s next possession and sank both free throws, and the Lancers followed with a defensive stop and a DeShaun Wade layup to extend the lead back to seven. Longwood did not allow UNC Asheville to score on back-to-back possessions the rest of the way and held the Bulldogs to their lowest scoring total and field goal percentage all season.
UNC Asheville’s .345 field goal percentage was also the lowest by any Longwood opponent this season, as was the Bulldogs’ .286 clip from three-point range. Tajion Jones led the Bulldogs with 19 points and hit five three-pointers, while Thorpe finished with 10 points, seven of which came in the second half.
However, whereas Thorpe went off for 18 points in the final 12:32 of Wednesday’s game to help the Bulldogs overcome a five-point Longwood lead, the Lancers held UNC Asheville to just seven points on their final 15 possessions Thursday.
“We want to be a tough, physical team that scouts the opponent well and makes it hard to score,” Aldrich said. “We haven’t been that team consistently this season, but tonight I thought we had some consistency there. It’s something we’ve been hammering on for quite a while, but it’s something we need to continue to work on.”
That end-to-end effort also came by way of a more rested lineup, as the return to form of Bligen and Wade, and even six minutes from formerly injured guard Jermaine Drewey, allowed Aldrich to limit consistent 30-minute-men Munoz and Hill to 27 minutes apiece. Hill, a freshman who started the first nine games of his collegiate career, came off the bench for the first time Thursday in a rotation with Munoz that saw the duo combine for 13 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and two steals.
“We moved Justin out of the starting lineup because I wanted to get him and Juan to rotate a little bit better, Aldrich said. “Juan only played 27 minutes tonight, Justin played almost 26-and-a-half, and that’s probably more what they should be playing rather than 32. That enables them to play a little bit harder for more consistent periods.
“I thought Justin was really good – he had some big buckets, especially the one he made at the end of the shot clock. That was huge. He’s continuing to grow and develop. He’s going to be a really special player for us.”
The New Year’s Eve victory sends Longwood into 2021 with a roster slowly returning to full strength and an upcoming slate of 16 Big South games. The next two of those will be on the road at USC Upstate on Jan. 4-5 followed by a return to Willett Hall to host Campbell on Jan. 9-10.
“We’ll give the guys off tomorrow and let them rest, but we have to continue to get better,” Aldrich said. We need to continue to emphasize our principles and continue to get better game by game. If we can do that, I’m excited to try and make a run here in the conference.”