A town celebrates as Gardner-Webb learns its NCAA fate

There are fewer than 5,000 people living in Boiling Springs and for a while on Sunday afternoon it felt like most of them had come out here to the campus of Gardner-Webb, to the Tucker Student Center, where this small private Baptist university not far from the South Carolina state line turned the Lord’s day into a party they’ll all remember for quite some time. Amen.

If you’ve ever been curious what it looked and felt like, to see a school make the NCAA tournament for the first time after existing on the outside for so long, dreaming about what all the fuss was about, well, the scene here delivered some answers – starting with the big ol’ inflatable bounce house outside.

“For the little kids,” Chuck Burch, the athletic director, said while the children played and the adults lined up outside the barbecue food truck, and while the students lined up inside, an hour before the real party began. “(We) just tried to create a festival-like atmosphere, having never been” to the NCAA tournament.

People around this small town had known for more than a week that the Gardner-Webb men’s basketball team was NCAA tournament-bound. It clinched its bid last weekend, when it won the Big South tournament. A week of long days had passed while the wait went on for the tournament selection show on Sunday, and the revelation of where Gardner-Webb would be placed.

Everyone knew the Runnin’ Bulldogs would face long odds: maybe a No. 15 seed, but more likely a 16, and either a tournament play-in game on Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio, against another 16th-seeded team of dreamers, or a game against a No. 1 seed and one of the tournament favorites. Asked about the daunting potential of playing one of nation’s best, Tim Craft, the Gardner-Webb head coach, could only smile. Sure, he’d thought about what lies ahead.

“Scary,” he said, before saying it again. “Scary. But I will say, we’re kind of used to being the underdog here, and we were picked sixth in our league and then won our league.

“So our guys will go in and play with confidence, and I think that’s the key – we’ve got to be loose and confident to even have a chance.”

Such is the organic beauty of the NCAA tournament: the notion of chance and opportunity and that, perhaps, if things go right, with a break or two, maybe a school like Gardner-Webb can hang around for a while with one of the big boys, make it a close game, and who knows what could happen?

For now, early Sunday evening, the people here just wanted to know who their school was playing, and where. By the time the selection show began, Gardner-Webb supporters had filled three large rooms. Projection screens, carrying the show, sat up high on three walls. Every seat in the main room was full.

The team, which arrived to the party on a small white bus with signs that said “UNLEASH THE DAWGS” and “THAT FIRST TIME FEELING” sat in the front row. And the mayor, himself a Gardner-Webb alum and former basketball player, had awarded Craft a key to the city. The mayor’s name is Bill Ellis, and he’s something of a Boiling Springs lifer. He spoke with emotion, in the moments before the selection show, about the scene around him – the crowd who’d come out to share in the moment.

“I’ve been watching this show so many years,” said Ellis, a university trustee who’s been mayor for a little more than a year, “and seeing all that excitement. I can’t wait for them to make that announcement and (hear), ‘Gardner-Webb!’”

The relationship between Boiling Springs and the university is personal for many here, and so it is with Ellis, too. He arrived here in the early-1970s, he said, after spending 12 years of his childhood in an orphanage outside of Statesville. He came to Gardner-Webb in 1971, in part, to play basketball, and he was a guard on the team back long before the university became an NCAA Division I member, which didn’t happen until 2002.

“It’s pretty neat,” Ellis said, recounting his arrival here, “for an orphan boy to come and actually become the mayor.”

And about the school making the tournament?

“I think miracles do happen,” said Ellis, who played at Gardner-Webb when it competed as an NAIA school. … You don’t use that word lightly, because you never dreamed of that.”

When the selection show began, a quiet fell over the three rooms full of people. Some stood up on the balcony taking in the scene. Others milled about, standing, downstairs while they snacked on the food the school had catered in. The tournament’s East region was the first to be revealed. No Gardner-Webb, not yet, but when CBS went to commercial break it showed several little squares on screen, each one a live shot of a team somewhere waiting to see its name appear.

Even at that, the sight of themselves sitting and waiting for news, the people here erupted. The wait didn’t last long. The unveiling of the South region came next. Virginia popped up on the screen as the No. 1 seed there. And then, right beneath it, the No. 16 seed: Gardner-Webb. For a good 45 seconds, the players jumped around the fans that surrounded them screamed.

Gardner-Webb, it turned out, wouldn’t have to play in Dayton as part of the First Four. No, it was headed to Columbia, S.C. – not a long drive from Boiling Springs – to play Virginia, the school that made history about a year ago by becoming the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a 16. The University of Maryland-Baltimore County made that history a year ago and, earlier this week, Craft, the Gardner-Webb head coach, reminded his players of what’s possible in March.

“It gives you some hope, for sure,” he said. “In fact, on Wednesday, our first meeting (of the week), that’s what we did – just showed a bunch of clips of upsets. UMBC-Virginia, all the way back into we even had Hampton beating Iowa State back in the 90s.

“So we had all kinds of different 2 and 15 upsets, and the UMBC (upset), just to say, ‘Hey – anything can happen here.’”

His players understand that well enough, already. To reach this point, Gardner-Webb advanced through its conference tournament the hard way, with victories on the road in both the semifinals and finals. In the semis, it won at top-seeded Campbell and in the process defeated Chris Clemons, the nation’s leading scorer. Then in the championship game, Gardner-Webb won at Radford, which might have been the Big South tournament favorite, anyway, despite being the No. 2 seed.

Earlier in the season, too, Craft and his players experienced success against ACC schools. The Runnin’ Bulldogs – their mascot, in illustrated form, depicts one of the more slower-footed breeds of dog in mid-sprint – defeated Georgia Tech in mid-December, and Wake Forest later that month.

But now this is something different entirely, which called for an entirely different kind of gathering on Sunday: a food truck and an inflatable playground and catered food and a show on the big screen, with the mayor and hundreds of his closest friends all gathered round to see it.

“Not too many people know about Boiling Springs,” said David Efianayi, a senior guard. “It just shines a light to this community and the city. So it’s a great feeling.”

Efianayi and one of his classmates, senior forward D.J. Laster, were among those leading the cheers after they saw their school’s name on the big screen. They didn’t sit down for a good while and, not long after Gardner-Webb learned its fate, the players arrived at a row of tables and signed autographs for anyone who wanted them. The line was long.

“Boiling Springs isn’t that big of a town, or city,” Laster said, “but they came out today and showed love.”

His mind took him back to a team meeting in this same building back in August. It was the Bulldogs’ first team meeting of the season. Craft gathered his players in the same room in which they sat on Sunday, and he showed them video clips of college basketball teams celebrating on Selection Sunday, having seen the name of their schools show up on the NCAA tournament bracket.

Craft told the story again to the crowd on Sunday:

“We told them, hey guys, seven months from now, you’re going to be sitting right in that chair, and we’re going to be watching our name come up on the screen. You almost get chills when you think about that.”

And so Laster and his teammates thought about that: “It was like a surreal experience,” Laster said, now having lived the vision.

The party went on for a while longer. Music continued to thump. The bounce house continued to bounce, at least for a while. Then Craft and his staff began preparing. Not long after the show, he received his first question of what’s likely to be many this week about whether “lightning can strike twice,” as a television reporter put it, referring to another 16-seed defeating top-seeded Virginia.

Craft said he hoped it might instill some faith, at a school with deep religious ties. Then he found his inner Norman Dale, the coach of the small-town team in Hoosiers, who reminds his players that the dimensions of the game don’t change, regardless of the stage.

“Hopefully,” Craft said of what UMBC did a season ago, and of his team’s journey to this point, the recent past “instills some belief that anything can happen, and we’re all playing on a 94-foot court and 10-foot rims.

“And let’s go.”

All around him, people were still celebrating a moment that this community, both the town and its university, had never experienced. Craft walked away after the last of his television interviews with a piece of glitter, or a sequin, or something, stuck to his hair. It’d been shot out of a party favor when Gardner-Webb’s name appeared on screen.

Now, for him and his staff, the party was over. It was time to get to work, driven by the dream of making more history.