Panthers step lively as champs
In the doughnut of a circle formed by his High Point University teammates, John Brown started dancing in celebration.
The Panthers were dancing because minutes earlier they had escaped with a watershed 56-53 victory over Campbell that clinched the program’s first outright Big South Conference regular-season championship.
HPU (16-13, 12-4) secured the conference’s automatic bid to the NIT, the school’s first, if they do not go on to win the league tournament and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, which would also be a school first.
“(Point guard) Dejuan McGaughy taught me all those moves,” Brown said.
The fun moved to the locker room for an extended celebration.
“It was like Bozo the Clown time,” Brown said. “Everyone was having so much fun.”
The dancing came after the crowd sang to Queen’s “We Are the Champions” as it blared from loudspeakers, and the regular-season championship trophy was presented.
The fun was far removed from the night Allan Chaney’s defibrillator activated during a game against Wofford in late November, which eventually led doctors to recommend that Chaney no longer play basketball. It was a long way away from losing nine straight games against Division I teams, the last two against conference foes, after Chaney went out.
The last of those losses came on Jan. 10 against Radford, In one of the practices in the days that followed, point guard McGaughy broke his hand, causing the outlook for the rest of the season to look more bleak.
But with freshman Jorge Perez-Laham at the point and head coach Scott Cherry adjusting his strategy, the Panthers stopped the slide with an 83-75 victory over Longwood in their next game, beginning an improbable run of 12 victories in 14 games, despite the loss of second-leading scorer Adam Weary for eight games to an ankle injury.
The last of those wins came Friday night against the Camels before a packed Millis Center and a national television audience watching on ESPNU.
“Words can’t explain how I’m feeling right now,” Devante Wallace said after leading the Panthers with 18 points and 10 rebounds against the Camels. “It means a lot to those guys (in the locker room). Not a lot of people thought we could do it after all the adversity we went through and all the injuries — Allan going down, us going on the nine-game losing streak against Division I teams, Dejuan breaking his hand.
“No one thought we could do it. They didn’t think Jorge could run the show and I think he is not just one of the best freshmen, but one of the best point guards in the conference. Then with Adam going down everybody thought we were in trouble. But we kept believing. God had a plan for us. There’s a reason we went through all this.”
The Panthers were able to come through thanks to a cornerstone in center Brown; Wallace turning into a reliable double-figure scorer; the ability of Wallace, Lorenzo Cugini, Anthony Lindauer and Laham stepping up their offensive production (especially after Weary went down); and thanks to enough defense to win close games.
“Allan went down and the rest of us had to pick up the slack,” Brown said. “Guys stepped up and filled roles that they normally wouldn’t do. They step up their points, stepped up their rebounds, whatever they had to do. That’s what they did this whole year.”
In the 14 games during the streak, the Panthers gave up 80 or more points in two games and lost both. In the wins, they never gave up more than 75, and seven times they held opponents under 70 points.
“It was a collective effort,” Wallace said of the turnaround. “We have great senior leaders especially (reserve guard) Derrell (Edwards) and Dejuan. They pulled together and said’ we can do this.’ Derrell is one of our more vocal leaders. We all believed it. No one in the locker room doubted it. With all the negative comments, we still didn’t doubt. We knew we had the best team, we knew it.”
They also found a knack to win close games. Of the 12 wins, only two were by more than eight points — those coming in a nine-point triumph over UNC Asheville and a 36-point blowout at Longwood.
The win over the Camels was one of the toughest. Brown struggled with his shooting after hitting his first two shots and became frustrated as the Camels tried to push him around.
“It was a physical game and I wasn’t finishing shots that I normally finish,” Brown said after being held to 12 points, almost seven below his average. “So, I started looking for something on the defensive end to get us going. I didn’t have my touch and I forced some shots. I’ve got to let the game come to me the next time.”
The Panthers didn’t take the lead for good until Weary, playing for the first time since suffering his injury, drilled a baseline jumper with 5:03 to play. Only five points were scored after that.
Brown got the last of his 12 points on a follow dunk of a Cugini miss with 4:16 to play to put the Panthers up 55-51. Luke Moyer, who came off the bench to lead Campbell with 16 points, hit a jumper to make it 55-53.
The Camel did not score the rest of the way as they failed on four possessions with the opportunity to tie the score or take the lead.
“We got a lot of stops and made plays when we needed,” Cherry said.
The Camels last real chance to win went away when D.J. Mason missed jumper with four seconds left, Cugini got the rebound, was fouled and made one of two free throws, leaving Campbell needing a 3 to tie.
They never got it. Brown intercepted the inbounds pass but picked up his dribble thinking the game was over, started to walk off the court and was called for traveling. The Camels got another opportunity with less than a second to play but couldn’t get a 3-point attempt off before the buzzer.
That triggered the dancing.
“Go down the line and a lot of guys contributed,” Cherry said. “They stepped in and did their part. They refused to lose. In this stretch, they’ve just refused to lose. They believe in each other and trust in one another. It’s been a lot of hard work. They’ve paid attention to a lot of little details to get the big prize.”
A bigger one, an invitation to a bigger dance, can be collected if the Panthers win three games in three days staring Friday a few miles inland from Myrtle Beach .
“We’ll celebrate this now but we’ve got to get back to work,” Cugini said.