The Lipscomb University Bisons are going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
Lipscomb (22-9) defeated the top-seeded Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles (23-10) 108-96 in the ASUN Conference Championship in Fort Myers to earn an automatic bid to the tournament.
It was, to put it mildly, a barn-burner. Garrison Mathews put up 33 points and nine boards for the Bisons. Brandon Goodwin and Zach Johnson scored 34 and 37, respectively, for FGCU. The teams combined for 37 turnovers and 28 three-pointers made. Each side dominated one half of the game.
Mathews came out firing. The ASUN’s leading scorer canned his first four shots, three of them from deep, as the Bisons roared out to a 24-9 lead. He said Coach Casey Alexander told the team to enjoy the stage, but treat it like another game.
Matt Rose and Aaron Korn kept the good times rolling with threes of their own—Lipscomb started the game 7-of-9 from deep. Eli Pepper threw down an alley-oop dunk assisted by Kenny Cooper, then the pair connected again for another Pepper jam. George Brammeier scored a pair of layups. Mathews just kept scoring.
When the dust settled on the Bisons’ breakneck first half, Mathews had 26 points on 13 shots. Lipscomb led 60-31, good for the Bisons’ highest-scoring half of the year.
The Bisons shot 20-of-30 from the field and assisted on 16 of those baskets. Cooper dished out nine of those assists and finished the game with 17 points.
In the first, FGCU survived on a diet of contested threes and midrange jumpers, shooting 12-of-29 and turning the ball over a dozen times in the period. Antravious Simmons did his best to keep the Eagles in the game, putting up nine points off the bench. Goodwin added 10, but turned the ball over five times.
Then the Eagles turned up the heat in the second half, showing full-court pressure for the entire period. Playing without Cooper for long stretches after he picked up his fourth foul with 14 minutes to play, the Bisons turned the ball over six times in five minutes and only attempted one field goal.
ASUN Player of the Year Goodwin and all-ASUN first-teamer Zach Johnson couldn’t miss as FGCU ripped off a 45-20 run spanning most of the half, combining to hit 11 threes and getting the lead down to as few as five points with eight minutes to play.
Alexander, who received a technical for arguing early in the Eagles’ run, leading to an effective five-point possession for the home team, said his warning to his team at halftime that FGCU could make up the deficit proved too prophetic.
“It is so hard, especially when that just happened three weeks ago,” he said. The Eagles erased an 18-point Lipscomb lead in less than 14 minutes in Allen Arena on Jan. 18. “We had good press offense practice, and I believe in the guys on our team, but it’s so hard to regain your composure, settle down and just be players, but thankfully, the clock ran out.”
Johnson and Goodwin combined for 53 in the second half. FGCU put up 65 points, 21 of those coming off of 19 Lipscomb turnovers.
But the Bisons eventually settled down against the pressure. Marberry quieted the crowd with three huge buckets in the paint—he finished with 14 points on a perfect 5-of-5 night. Johnson fouled out contesting a Mathews three-pointer. Lipscomb strung rebounds and free throws together to close the game out.
Mathews and Marberry both credited the team’s experience as the reason they were able to hold on.
“We knew what we had to do when our shot wasn’t dropping and we couldn’t get it past half court for a little bit,” Marberry said. “After we settled down and got rid of those errors, we did just fine.”
The visiting team attempted 47 free throws, almost double its average of 24.6 attempts per game this season. Alexander said in combination with his team’s hot-shooting first half, shooting that many foul shots made it “hard to lose.”
“We tried [to lose], but we didn’t,” Alexander said in the press conference following the game. He thanked the Lipscomb students that traveled to the game “for getting down here on such short notice, and I appreciate the administration for finding a way to get people down here.”
Down 106-94 with less than a minute to go, Goodwin sent Cooper to the line for the sake of extending the game. Cooper beamed all the way down the court, embracing Mathews before stepping up to shoot his free throws.
Twelve years to the day after Lipscomb fell in overtime to Belmont in the Bisons’ only other conference championship appearance, they knew it was finally time to go dancing.
“This has to be the foundation, not the rooftop,” Alexander said. “That will be the agenda going forward and that will be the challenge to players and staff.”
The Bisons’ seeding and opponent in the tournament will be announced next Sunday at 5 p.m. CT on TBS.
This article has been updated with quotes and statistics from the press conference following the game.
Photo courtesy of Lipscomb Athletics