The Lipscomb Bisons basketball team has won eight straight games. And now are ASUN champions headed to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
Behind the 108 – 96 win on Sunday against Florida Gulf Coast was the steady hand of point guard Kenny Cooper. He led the team with one of his best games this season.
Cooper has had to fill an unexpected role this season. Point guard Nathan Moran was not able to play this season due to an offseason surgery. The sophomore stepped into the place of a senior.
“My role on the team doubled almost becoming the starting point guard,” Cooper said. “I took that as a challenge to step into the leadership role that he did.”
This season, Cooper had the second most steals in the league with 63, only five behind the ASUN conference player of the year Zach Johnson of FGCU. He also led the Bisons in assists with 119 assists averaging four a game.
Even without playing this season, Moran has played a role for Cooper, too.
“As a point guard, the expectations for you are high,” said Cooper on the role. “You have to know what’s going on more than anyone else on the court. Nate’s been great helping me form into that role. He’s been helping me lead a team on and off the court.”
Cooper said he’s also learned some things on his own through this experience as a leader.
“The best way to lead is through your actions, and you have to have good communications. If you’re not the one out there every day working hard, then even if you are talking, they’re not going to listen. We have to look at every day as an opportunity to get better.”
As a new leader, the season wasn’t easy, but Cooper saw potential for success from the start.
“Anything short of an ASUN championship, we wouldn’t have considered as a failure, but we would have been disappointed. Because we knew we had everything lined up for us to get it done. We were determined to get the job done this year, and I’m glad we did.”
In the championship game Sunday afternoon, Cooper was at the top of his game. He had 17 points, nine assists, five rebounds, one steal, and only one turnover.
The only downside to his stat sheet was in the foul column. Cooper picked up his fourth foul with 13:57 left in the second half. Lipscomb had a 24-point lead, but that was all about to change.
After Cooper was subbed out, FGCU went on an 8 – 0 run cutting the Lipscomb lead to 16. Lipscomb hadn’t made a field goal since 14:24 and did not score another field goal until Eli Pepper laid it in for two at 8:23. During that time, Lipscomb turned the ball over eight times.
“They started making everything,” Cooper said. “It was unreal. People that don’t usually hit threes were hitting threes. They just slowly chipped away at the lead.”
The team was suffering from a strong full-court press by FGCU, and the Eagles seemingly unstoppable three-point shooting. FGCU was slowly chipping away at a once 32-point Lipscomb lead. All Cooper could do was watch from the bench and encourage his teammates.
“It was nerve-wracking,” Cooper said on watching the lead fade away from the bench. “But at the same time, as a point guard, as a “quarterback,” you’ve got to stay calm and keep on encouraging.
By the time Cooper was subbed back in to finish the game after a couple short appearances on the court, there was only 3:06 left. FGCU had cut the massive lead to seven points.
“In my mind I was thinking that when I get back in there, I have to be ready to win a game,” Cooper said. “Nate (Moran) told me, ‘You’re our point guard. You’re our leader. Go win us this game.”
Through free throw shooting, defensive stops and strong defensive rebounding, the Bisons were able to hold off a FGCU onslaught to take the title.
Down the stretch, Cooper was a key player. He hit six free throws and came up with three defensive rebounds to help seal the deal.
“I was glad the game was over with and time ran out,” Cooper said. “But what I was really excited for was this: the people that were at home cheering for us. It’s so much bigger than us.”
Lipscomb fans were in the gym to celebrate with the team in a gym full of FGCU fans. And their support was heard.
“It was a silent gym — that was the best part of it all,” Cooper said. “You could hear all 50 of our Lipscomb people in the stands. I’ll never forget that moment walking up to the free throw line, knowing we had the game in hand, hearing those fans cheering.”
By overcoming FGCU’s comeback effort, Lipscomb avoided losing the game after having an enormous lead.
This wasn’t the first time Cooper or Lipscomb has seen a comeback like this one looked like it was going to be.
“In high school, I lost a 31-point lead in the championship game.”
Cooper’s Franklin Road Academy Panthers lost to Harding Academy in overtime 87 – 84 after having a 31-point lead in the third quarter.
On Sunday, Lipscomb gained a 32-point lead after Cooper knocked down a pair of free throws with 16:33 left in the second half. But luckily for Cooper and the Bisons, history did not repeat itself.
This wasn’t the first time Lipscomb had seen a large comeback effort this season from Florida Gulf Coast either.
“We had played them two times earlier in the season and lost two double-digit leads,” Cooper said on previous matchups. “We lost the first one at home and won the second there.”
The Bisons faced the same challenge against FGCU. But the last win against FGCU meant much more to Cooper.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” Cooper said. “I’ve just been thinking about all the long hours of summer, conditioning and every meeting we’ve been through. The dividends of all of that have been paid off.”
“It’s every kid’s dream to go to March Madness. And that’s the end goal for everyone. To say we’re going to the tournament is unreal.”
Cooper, along with coach Casey Alexander, sees this as just the start of something special.
“Coach Casey said, ‘This is great, but this isn’t the end all be all for us.’ We wanna take this Lipscomb program to the next level to where people recognize us,” Cooper said. “We don’t want people to hear Lipscomb and ask, ‘What’s Lipscomb?’. That’s the goal of it all. This is only the beginning.”
Not only does Cooper see this extending beyond this season, but he sees the effect it has on the fans.
“It’s been such a cool experience, and I’m not taking any of it for granted,” Cooper said. “It goes beyond the fifteen guys in the locker room and the coaching staff.”
The team was greeted in front of Allen Arena when the bus returned from the airport Monday night. The players were met by hundreds of students.
“The joy that we saw in the people that we greeted . . . and how much fun they were having along with us is awesome. That’s what makes it all worth it.”
Cooper and the Bisons find out who and where they will be playing this Sunday in the Selection Show on TBS at 5 p.m. central time.
“I’m so excited,” Cooper said. “Selection Sunday is going to be so much fun.”
Photo courtesy of Lipscomb Athletics