VMI knocks off Gardner-Webb, 76-72

Stan Okoye had 25 points and seven rebounds, and Ron Burks capped a 19-point night with a driving layup with 40 seconds to go, helping the VMI Keydets defeat the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs, 76-72, in Big South basketball action Monday night at VMI’s Cameron Hall.

After Okoye hit a jumper with 2:13 to go, giving the Keydets (7-7, 2-2) a three-point lead, GWU’s (7-9, 2-2) Tashan Newsome hit two free throws to cut the margin to one. After an exchange of missed three-pointers, Burks picked up a loose ball on the left side of the paint, drove to his right and hit a driving layup with his right hand with 43 seconds remaining, giving VMI a 75-72 cushion.

The Runnin’ Bulldogs’ Kevin Hartley then missed a three-pointer, but Burks missed the front end of a one-and-one to give the visitors another shot. Newsome misfired, however, and Okoye rebounded and split two free throws to ice the Keydets’ second straight conference win.

Two nights after posting a season-high 27 points, Okoye had seven assists, three blocks and four steals to go along with his 25-point effort. Burks had a season-high 19, including four three-pointers, one shy of his career high, while Michael Sparks (13) and D.J. Covington (10) also finished in double-figure scoring. Covington’s 10 points came on a night where he played 30 minutes, 20 more than his previous season-high.

The contest was close early, but Gardner-Webb held just one lead, a 2-0 margin in the opening moments. VMI then led throughout the remainder of the half, with a margin of as many as seven over the first eight-plus minutes. The Keydets then went up by double-digits for the first time on an Okoye basket at the 9:38 mark, taking a 26-15 lead, but the Runnin’ Bulldogs battled back.

A 16-5 run by the visitors got them back in it, knotting the contest at 31-all. Six different Gardner-Webb players scored during the spurt, and Santoine Butler tied the game with a hoop, with 3:20 remaining in the half. VMI then hit four straight free throws as part of outscoring GWU 8-5 over the final 3:20, and the Keydets took a 39-36 edge into halftime.

In the first half, the Keydets held a 15-7 edge in points off turnovers, but in a startling turn, had no points from their bench. VMI had posted over 40 bench points in each of its past five games. Okoye and Burks had 11 points apiece in the first half, as the Keydets shot 50% from the field.

Gardner-Webb started well in the second half, and took its first lead since 2-0 early, going up 42-41 with 18:32 to play. In fact, GWU pulled ahead by four after a Max Landis triple at 17:34, but the Keydets retook the advantage two-and-a-half minutes later, thanks to a three-point play by Okoye, 50-49.

From there, the two teams traded the lead five times over the next three-plus minutes, with that run ending on a Newsome three-point play that gave the Runnin’ Bulldogs a 57-55 lead with 11:44 to play. That was part of a 6-0 GWU run, giving the visitors a game-high five point lead, 60-55, with 10:52 remaining.

Burks would score VMI’s next six points, hitting a pair of crucial three-pointers to keep the Keydets within striking distance. The second triple cut the Gardner-Webb lead to 62-61, but Stefon Johnson scored at the other end to make it a three-point game, 64-61. That would be GWU’s final lead, as Okoye notched a three-point play to tie the score with 7:34 remaining. The junior then hit a free throw on VMI’s next possession, giving the Keydets a 65-64 lead they would not relinquish.

The Keydets led by just two, however, after a minute-plus sequence that saw the squads combined for four missed free throws and four missed field goals. The edge was 66-64 with 5:14 to play, but Burks found Gabriel on the right wing for a three-pointer, giving the Keydets a 69-65 cushion. The clutch shot was Gabriel’s only field goal of the night, as he struggled through a 1 for 14 evening.

Sparks then bumped VMI’s lead to six with a driving shot in the lane, but Jason Dawson hit a triple for Gardner-Webb, and with 3:24 left, the margin was three, 71-68. Newsome cut it to one with two foul shots, setting the stage for Okoye’s jumper and the game-ending dramatics.

Despite his off night from the floor, Gabriel chipped in with a career-high tying four blocks. Okoye’s seven assists marked a new career-high, surpassing his previous best of five, and VMI won despite just four bench points, its lowest total since Nov. 15. It also marked the third straight game in which the Keydets had held their opponents under 50% shooting.

In addition, freshman guard Quinton Upshur did not play due to a cut on his left hand.

Gardner-Webb was led by Johnson in defeat, as he posted 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.

VMI will return to action Thursday, taking on the UNC Asheville Bulldogs in Asheville, N.C. Game time is set for 7 p.m.

Quotes – VMI Head Coach Duggar Baucom

“It was mostly the starters tonight, as we got very little help from our bench. I thought Ron Burks was absolutely fantastic, as was Stan Okoye. Michael Sparks always seems to play well against Gardner-Webb, and I thought he stepped up tonight. I thought D.J. Covington gave us quality minutes as well. Ron hit that driving layup down the stretch – He does that shot a lot in practice and I was holding my breath as it went in.”

“We weren’t as aggressive against the zone as we need to be. We did a good job getting it inside, but we need to do better.”

“Gardner-Webb is tough and physical, and they play hard and drive it to the rim. We weren’t as strong with the ball until the end, when we started to make plays and rebound.”


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