Gardner-Webb leads NC hopefuls in Big South Tournament

On Tuesday, UNC Asheville advanced with a win over Campbell, and High Point lost

Guard Nate Johnson and Gardner-Webb, pictured during their loss at UNC in November, are the third seed in the Big South Tournament and will face UNC Asheville on Thursday at top-seeded Radford’s Dedmon Center. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

The Big South Tournament helped tip-off March Madness, becoming one of the first conference tournaments in the country to begin play.

Opening-round games were on Tuesday night, and the champion will receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.

North Carolina teams have won eight of the conference’s 34 tournaments over the history of the Big South. That includes Gardner-Webb, who won last year and then put an opening-round scare into eventual champion Virginia in the NCAAs.

Three of the four Big South teams from North Carolina were in action on Tuesday night, but here’s a look at how the conference looks and the chance that it will once again give the Old North State another bid in the Big Dance.

Gardner-Webb: The Bulldogs finished third in the regular season with an 11-7 record in conference, four games behind co-leaders Winthrop and Radford. Gardner-Webb played a tough nonconference schedule, resulting in a 15-15 overall record. The Bulldogs lost at North Carolina, South Carolina, Wichita State and Virginia Tech.

While the Bulldogs are in the second tier of Big South teams, they have a decent shot of pulling an upset of one of the co-favorites in the conference tourney. Gardner-Webb closed the season with a 70-62 win at Radford, preventing the Highlanders from taking sole possession of the regular season crown. It was G-W’s third straight win, including two on the road, and its sixth in the final seven games.

Gardner-Webb also has a win over Winthrop, 74-70 on Feb. 13, and just missed sweeping the Eagles, losing in three overtimes at Winthrop in January.

G-W is one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the country, ranking 31st overall with a 36.9% rate from three. They’re led from outside by Nate Johnson, who made second-team All-Big South and hit 43.6% of his threes in conference play, and Jaheam Cornwall, an All-Big South honorable mention who is fourth in the nation with a 45.5% rate.

The Bulldogs are also No. 23 in blocked shot rate, swatting 13.5% of opponent shot attempts. Ludovic Dufeal, the runner-up for Big South Defensive Player of the Year, leads the Bulldogs in protecting the rim with 65 blocks this season, just five away from the school single-season record.

Gardner-Webb will open with an in-state foe when they play UNC Asheville — which beat Campbell Tuesday — in the quarterfinals on Thursday at Radford, who is hosting the final three rounds of the tournament. Assuming they win that one, G-W would likely get Winthrop and Radford, in that order.

UNC Asheville: The rest of the North Carolina teams in the field needed to earn their way to Radford by winning in the opening round on campus sites. Sixth-seeded UNCA hosted its first-round game against 11th-seed Campbell on Tuesday night, winning 72-68.

Asheville finished tied for fifth in the conference at 8-10 but lost the tiebreaker, and an opening-round bye, to Hampton. UNCA was 14-15 in the regular season with losses at Tennessee and Wake Forest.

The Bulldogs were swept by Campbell in the regular season, including a loss in the season finale that snapped a two-game winning streak, and four wins in five games, for UNCA.

Asheville only played Winthrop and Gardner-Webb one time and split its two games with Radford. The Bulldogs lost three of four against the two last-place teams in the conference — High Point and Campbell.

The Bulldogs are led by second-team All-Big South guard DeVon Baker and third-teamer LJ Thorpe.

Campbell: The Camels finished the regular season on a high note, winning two of three and three of five to finish 15-15, 6-12 in conference, but were eliminated Tuesday at UNC Asheville.

Unlike other teams in the Big South, Campbell didn’t face a series of power conference teams in the nonconference schedule. A 12-point loss at East Carolina is the highlight of the schedule.

Campbell lit it up against Asheville in the two regular season games, hitting 54% of its shots on the road and 58% at home, but shot just 44.6% in Tuesday’s loss. The Camels rely on leading scorer Cedric Henderson Jr. (12.3 points per game) and All-Academic Big South guard Cory Gensler (10.6 points). They had 15 and 13 points, respectively, in Tuesday’s game.

High Point: The Panthers tied Campbell for last place in the conference at 6-12. They received the 10th seed and faced No. 7 USC Upstate on the road Tuesday night, losing 69-59.

High Point ended the regular season with three straight losses and six of eight. One of the only wins during that stretch was over USC Upstate, which coach Tubby Smith’s Panthers had swept in the regular season. Guard John-Michael Wright, who was All-Freshman and honorable mention All-Big South this season, had 19 points in the loss.