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11/14/2007 10:49:00 PM
Gardner-Webb Takes Manhattan
Bulldogs on the downtown 1 train (from left to right: Thomas Sanders, Matt French, Takayo Siddle).
NEW YORK -- Six Gardner-Webb players were standing across the street from Madison Square Garden at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, soaking in the atmosphere of a city they'd never set foot in before -- a place with more than 2,100 times the residents of their school's hometown, tiny Boiling Springs, N.C. (pop. 3,866). An ad for a Dane Cook performance was on the Garden's video board, and a banner for the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic hung over one of the arena's main entryways. Freshman Nate Blank, a forward from Terre Haute, Ind., had spotted the banner first, and pointed out something peculiar: "Look at that," he said. "It's still showing Kentucky's logo."
The sign must've been made well in advance of the event, expecting Billy Clyde Gillispie's Wildcats to cruise through the two opening rounds at Rupp Arena and reach the Big Apple along with Memphis, Oklahoma and UConn. A week ago, Gardner-Webb threw a wrench in things by pulling off a monstrous, 84-68 upset of Kentucky. And so here are the Runnin' Bulldogs, on 7th Avenue and 32nd street in Manhattan, ready to take on Jim Calhoun's Huskies in less than 24 hours. The Gardner-Webb squad arrived around noon Wednesday, after playing a game the previous night -- they hadn't expected to reach New York, either -- and rushing to the Charlotte airport early in the morning. The banner wasn't the only thing that had failed to recognize their presence. Junior guard Takayo Siddle was wearing a fresh tournament T-shirt ... with Kentucky's logo on the back. "They left us off this, too," he said matter-of-factly, without a hint of resentment. Blank noted that the Bulldogs' logo had at least made it onto the tournament's official Web site, which was nice.
Gardner-Webb coach Rick Scruggs, who somehow managed to maintain a placid demeanor as his team took a 14-0 lead against UK and then held on for a shocking victory, told me via phone on Tuesday that he had once tried to get into Madison Square Garden. He was at the Final Four in 1996, the last time it was held in New Jersey and Kentucky won the national title. Scruggs traveled into Manhattan to get a peek at what, he says, "is one of what I consider to be the meccas of college basketball -- that and Rupp Arena. But security wouldn't let me in." Last week Scruggs won at Rupp. This week he'll be allowed in the Garden -- and allowed to stalk the sideline, no less.
Scruggs' players shouldn't be in awe of UConn, on a neutral floor, after knocking off Kentucky on its home turf. The Bulldogs were, however, somewhat out of sorts in the city. I met up with a group of them following their practice on Wednesday night -- Blank, Siddle, Matt French, Quincy Sarpy and last Wednesday's heroes, Grayson Flittner and Thomas Sanders, who combined for 43 points against UK. Walking up from their hotel toward the artificial glow of Times Square, they marveled at things big (the Garden, MTV's TRL studios, the NASDAQ video display) and small (boiled nut vendors, taxi cabs, steam coming out of manholes). "Why does it do that?" French asked of the white clouds billowing up out of the sewer. "It's right out of Ninja Turtles." Some of the Webb-sters are from decent-sized locales -- French hails from Melbourne, Australia, and Sanders is from Houston -- but Boiling Springs, where they left that morning, is a one-stoplight, zero-bar town in a dry, isolated county in North Carolina. Slightly different than New York City.
Bulldogs in Times Square (from left to right: Takayo Siddle, Nate Blank, Quincy Sarpy, Matt French, Thomas Sanders, Grayson Flittner).
All of the players were wearing Gardner-Webb garb, and were stopped a couple of times on the street by curious pedestrians. One man asked, "You guys ballers? What division?"
None of the players had been on a subway before, either, and I ended up playing the role of tour guide, taking them downtown on the 1 train from Times Square to Greenwich Village. The destination: John's of Bleecker Street, for classic New York-style, brick-oven pizza. There, the players told stories about the outbreak of basketball fever at their 3,000-student Baptist college, which has chartered buses take students on an 11-hour journey from Boiling Springs to Manhattan for tonight's game. "Kids camped out for three nights in the cold, trying to get a spot on the buses," said Sanders, the team's lone senior. "Tents were wrapping around our gym; they called it Scruggsville."
I asked them what the highlight of last season was; they had finished eighth in the Atlantic Sun Conference and never appeared on ESPN or ESPN2. Tonight will be their second appearance this season on the network's main channels. "We don't really want to talk about last year," said Sanders. "We only won nine games [they were 9-21]. There weren't any highlights." Flittner chimed in with a story of beating Western Carolina on the road in December. "We came back to win in overtime," he said. "That was probably the biggest thing that happened."
Gardner-Webb has attracted slightly more attention this season. Flittner asked me, "Why do you think the media jumped on our story so much last week?" They went from total obscurity to taking calls from the likes of the New York Times and the L.A. Times, and being followed around by ESPN camera crews. Whereas, he said, fellow Atlantic Sun member Mercer upset a ranked USC team -- with O.J. Mayo -- in a standard non-conference game a few days later and didn't receive the same level of attention.
My answer had three parts: The story was amplified by the fact that their victim was Kentucky; the Bulldogs hit college hoops' most legendary program with a gut punch before Billy Clyde's revival could begin. The game was also on national TV, on a night where there were few other entertainment options. (Mercer's win came on a Saturday.) And most importantly, the nation is always ready and willing to fall in love with a tournament Cinderella. Even if the tournament is in November.
Actually, as a UK fan I don't want to move on, and I DEFINITELY don't want the team to move on - hopefully this unexpected week off might offer some opportunity to reflect and refocus. Congrats to Gardner-Webb and best of luck in NYC.
Yea we might have not won the next two games in the tourney...but look at us...we are GARDNER WEBB!! I think it's safe to say we held our own against U Conn and Oklahoma. Gardner Webb is not a basketball school...but look at us!! Haha
I agree with the person above me, Gardner-Webb came off a horibble season last year to come in and win its first two real season games, is amazing in itself but Kentucky who everyone always wacthed expecting them to win since they are so well known. These boys deserved this, they needed a reason to stay at Gardner-Webb a place where most of the students don't even go to the games they could care less. This is a big event for everyone at GWU!