Gardner-Webb heads to first NCAA Tournament

The Runnin’ Bulldogs will look to be the second No. 16 seed to beat No. 1 Virginia

Gardner-Webb guard David Efianayi leads the Runnin’ Bulldogs points, blocks, free throws and 3-pointers. (Lee Luther Jr. / AP Photo)

A week after Gardner-Webb earned its first-ever bid to the NCAA Tournament, the Runnin’ Bulldogs found out where they’d be headed for their first game.

It was only the least-enviable spot in the entire bracket.

Gardner-Webb’s victory in the Big South Tournament last weekend earned the Runnin’ Bulldogs a 16 seed, opposite the University of Virginia.

While UVa isn’t considered the best of the one-seeds, if ever a top seed had something to prove in its first-round game, it’s the Cavaliers.

Virginia made history last year when it lost to UMBC in the first round, becoming the first No. 1 seed in tournament history to lose to a 16. One seeds were 135-0 heading into that game, but UMBC not only pulled the tournament’s biggest-ever upset, it won going away, thumping the Cavs by 20.

After spending a year dealing with the pain and embarrassment of the historic loss, head coach Tony Bennett and UVa will enter this March looking to make a statement.

In response to the news that his team earned a one seed, Bennett responded with a shrug and some snark.

“Everyone can play in this tournament,” he said. “To be a No. 1 seed means it’s been a heck of a season. It doesn’t guarantee anything, as we know.”

With their fearsome defense and deliberate pace, the Cavs will be looking to throttle the Runnin’ Bulldogs early and erase the sting of UMBC.

Gardner-Webb shouldn’t be intimidated by the ACC opponent, however. In fact, the Bulldogs are 2-1 against that league this year, losing in the opener at Virginia Tech but recording road wins at Georgia Tech (by 10) and Wake Forest.

“Looking at their offensive numbers and their defensive numbers, obviously Gardner-Webb is very good,” Bennett said. “When you have to win on the road and beat good teams in that league, which they did, it means they’re playing very good basketball. They played a quality nonconference, and they won a couple of ACC games, so there’s certainly great respect for them.”

Still, Virginia will be another level of challenge altogether.

The Bulldogs will need to match up with forward DeAndre Hunter, shooting guard Kyle Guy and point Ty Jerome, the three players who have helped pace Virginia’s underrated offensive attack. UVa also has big man Jack Salt underneath and freshman guard Kihei Clark.

Gardner-Webb counters with an experienced roster, including two 1,000-point career scorers. Senior guard David Efianayi led the team in scoring (18.7 points per game), as well as blocks, free throws and threes. He’s joined by 6-foot-6 senior DJ Laster, an All-Big South forward who hit 14 of 17 shots in the Big South title game. He led the league in shooting at .537 and averaged 13.7 points and 5.5 rebounds. The two have combined for more than 2,900 points.

“I just knew I needed to play really hard, go hard and leave my legacy out there on the court,” Laster said after his huge performance in the title game. “So I brought that approach from the jump ball. I felt it during starting lineups — that this was my last time to show what I’ve got. So I just went hard from the jump ball to the end.”

Gardner-Webb has a four-guard lineup, where Efianayi is joined by freshman Jose Perez (15.0 points per game), runner-up for conference Rookie of the Year and ranked among league leaders in scoring, rebounds and assists.

The Bulldogs are one of the top scoring teams in the Big South, a fact that UVa has noticed.

“They’re very efficient offensively and defensively,” Bennett said. “Their numbers are really good.”

While history — other than the most recent history — is not on Gardner-Webb’s side, the Runnin’ Bulldogs have the firepower and experience to at least hang close to Virginia. It would take a perfect game to drop the top-seeded Cavaliers in a second consecutive March Madness upset.

But if they do it…

If the Runnin’ Bulldogs pull off the upset, they’d meet the winner of No. 8 Mississippi and No. 9 Oklahoma. A win there would send Gardner-Webb to Louisville, two wins away from a Final Four. No. 4 Kansas State or No. 5 Wisconsin are the most likely Sweet 16 opponents. Then it would likely meet No. 2 Tennessee, No. 3 Purdue or defending champion Villanova with a Final Four berth on the line.

“I’m just really humbled right now and blessed to get a chance to coach this group of guys,” coach Tim Craft said after the Big South title. “I’m just really proud of them for pulling through.”