BOILING SPRINGS, N.C – Chris Stephenson’s tap-in basket with 1.6 seconds left gave UNC Asheville a thrilling 58-56 Big South Conference win over Gardner-Webb Friday night before a stunned crowd of 2,200 at Porter Arena.
The Bulldogs (1-6, 1-0) won their Big South Conference opener for the fifth straight year and are 13-1 in league-opening games under head coach Eddie Biedenbach. Sean Smith led Asheville with a game-high 18 points. Stephenson added 13 points, all in the second half.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs (3-3, 0-1 BSC) were led by Aaron Silver’s 14 points and all of those came in the second half. C.J. Hailey contributed 11 points. The Bulldogs led 55-50 with 1:03 left but Gardner-Webb forced two turnovers and got a bucket and two free throws from Silver to cut the lead to 55-54.
Stephenson was fouled with 20 seconds left. He made the first free throw to pad the lead to 56-54 but missed the second. Hailey hit a 10-footer in the lane to knot the score at 56-56 with 10 seconds remaining. Out of timeouts, Asheville quickly brought the ball down court. Matt Dickey fired a 15-footer that missed with three seconds left but Stephenson was there to tip the ball back in to give Asheville the winning points.
“I’m so proud of our guys to hang in there on the road and find a way to win,” said Biedenbach. “It wasn’t pretty, and we had way too many turnovers to allow them to get back into the game. But when we struggled to score in the second half, we battled on defense to keep us in the game.
“When you start out 0-6, you can’t help to start doubting yourself but our guys have kept plugging and got rewarded with a win,” added Biedenbach. The Bulldogs won despite being out-rebounded 45-30. Gardner-Webb had 23 offensive rebounds. However, Asheville’s defense limited the Runnin’ Bulldogs (17-of-55) to just 31 percent shooting from the field for the game. The home team also made 23 turnovers
Junior forward John Williams had a solid game for the Bulldogs with nine points, six rebounds, three blocked shots and four steals. D.J. Cunningham added eight points. Asheville struggled from the field on the night, too. The Bulldogs shot just 38 percent (20-of-52) from the field and made 19 turnovers. Asheville went eight minutes in the second half without scoring. Smith knocked down three 3-pointers in the first half as the Bulldogs went on a late surge to take a 33-29 halftime lead.
Asheville got a lay-up from Stephenson and a trey from Smith to quickly build the lead to 38-29 early in the second half. Silver entered the game for Gardner-Webb and immediately knocked down two treys. Asheville then went ice cold from the field and allowed the Runnin’ Bulldogs to eventually take the lead at 45-42 on two free throws from Silver at the 9:56 mark.
Trailing 49-48 with four minutes left, the Bulldogs went on a 7-1 run to grab a 55-50 lead with 1:10 left as Smith scored on a lay-up. UNC Asheville plays next on Sunday, Dec. 13 at home against Montreat starting at 4:30 p.m. The Bulldogs have the next week off due to exams.