UNC Asheville pulls away late to overcome Longwood, 80-73
Tajion Jones and L.J. Thorpe combined for 41 points and spearheaded an efficient offensive performance that lifted UNC Asheville over Longwood 80-73 in game one of the two-game Big South series Wednesday afternoon in Willett Hall.
Entering the game as the No. 3 scorer in the Big South, Jones scored a game-high 23 points to help the Bulldogs (4-4, 3-0 Big South) stay unbeaten in conference play. Hitting 5-of-10 three-pointers, his performance was outshined only by an end-game performance from Thorpe in which he scored all 18 of his points in the final 12:32 to help the Bulldogs overcome a five-point Longwood lead in the second half.
The win keeps UNC Asheville – picked to finish second in the Big South Preseason Poll – atop the league standings in a four-way tie between Big South unbeatens.
The game was one of substantial runs with the lead swinging eight times, including three times in the second half after the teams battled to a one-point halftime margin. However, the high-powered Bulldogs – who rank among the Big South’s top three in scoring, field goal percentage and assists – had the final say with an 18-4 run late in the second half that put them ahead for good.
“I actually was encouraged in many respects,” said Longwood head coach Griff Aldrich. “As I told the guys, the reality was we got better tonight. I thought the guys really competed well, really from start to finish. I thought they competed hard and battled.
“Asheville, their whole goal is to try and put you in situations where you break down discipline-wise. We go up, they have to call a timeout, and then we broke down offensively. Then they just stopped their offense and started isolating and driving. It just snowballed. We weren’t scoring offensively, and we were giving up layups defensively. It was a good ballgame other than that one stretch where it got away.”
Facing a Longwood (1-8, 0-3 Big South) team without key forward Leslie Nkereuwem, the Bulldogs showcased their multi-faceted attack by shooting 50.0 percent (31-of-62) from the floor and hitting 21-of-28 shots from inside the three-point line. Forty of their 80 points came in the paint, including 12 from 6-6, 228-pound graduate transfer Evan Clayborne, who also grabbed nine rebounds.
That was enough to offset a season-high 19 points from Longwood junior DeShaun Wade in only his third game back since injury. He hit 6-of-12 shots from the floor and three three-pointers to join fellow junior Christian Wilson (15 points) as Longwood’s two double-digit scorers.
The Lancer bench also came through with a season-high 34 points, bolstered by the 19 from Wade and nine from Heru Bligen who also returned from a lengthy injury-related hiatus two games ago.
“The reality is I think you saw more of our depth tonight, even playing without Leslie, which is a huge loss,” Aldrich said. “Ilija [Stefanovic] did a great job, and I can go down the list. Heru defended really well, and he just brings a level of energy and athleticism, as does Jermaine [Drewey]. Those guys will only continue to get better as they get more time with one another.
With Nkereuwem out after back-to-back double-digit scoring games in his prior two outings, Longwood leaned heavily on the post duo of Stefanovic and Zac Watson, both of whom played season highs in minutes. Watson finished with a season-high nine points and Stefanovic a career-high six, but UNC Asheville’s guard-heavy attack wore down the shorthanded Lancer interior.
Four Bulldogs scored at least nine points, including point guard Lavar Batts Jr. who neared a double-double with nine points and eight assists. Thorpe also dished five assists, helping UNC Asheville rack up 16 helpers on 31 made field goals.
Even with UNC Asheville’s offensive firepower, Longwood led as the final eight minutes of the game, 58-56. However, Thorpe hit a go-ahead three-pointer with 7:59 to play and sank another one minute later to spark an 8-0 run that put the Bulldogs ahead for good.
Backed by Thorpe’s 18 points, UNC Asheville outscored Longwood 36-22 in the final 12:32 and had three separate runs of at least 7-0 in that span.
“They’re a good ball team,” Aldrich said of UNC Asheville. “I expect they’ll be towards the top of the Big South, and there were a lot of things we did really well against them. In the first half, I thought we got a lot of good, open shots. We were really playing off two and making them have to defend. You look at the rebounding, we outrebounded them.
“The other thing I was really pleased with was our turnovers. We had 10 tonight, and it’s almost like the ones we did have were nuclear bombs – either inbounding, or Jesper had one at the end and we had a couple charges, where those are very noticeable.
“But that is a big improvement from where we’ve been. We are taking some positive steps, but to win these types of games, we have to execute at a higher level. I think we’ll continue to move in the right direction.”
The Lancers and Bulldogs will meet again Thursday at 3 p.m. for game two of the series on ESPN+ and WVHL 92.9 FM.