The points in life that mean the most usually earmark the times when people overcome adversity to succeed. Sports mimic that; The narratives often focus on how teams mired in tough times overcame them.
Champions are meant to struggle, and even the greatest teams of all time had to cull their pride to achieve their status. That great “triumph narrative” supersedes the pen, the sword and even greatness itself.
Most of the time, though, teams create their own struggles. Most, if not all of the time, the befallen can look to their mistakes to find their own blood.
When High Point University’s Men’s Basketball team started their game against Longwood, the Panthers shot 84 percent in the first seven minutes. Damn near every shot looked wide open. HPU’s defense hounded the smaller, less athletic Lancers. They played a beautiful inside-out game, allowing their most athletic player, John Brown, to touch the ball as part of a system of passes to create open jumpers and easy buckets.
Blowouts can be gorgeous pyramids; build-ups and runs that last forever — watching dominance only gets old when the game becomes a slog. Dominance only gets old when the dominant stop hunting.
Despite a small Longwood run in the middle of the half, High Point corralled its conference foe at nearly every turn. The fact that Longwood shot poorly in the first half could be attributed to a tough road contest against a quality opponent. The narrative of triumph certainly clung to that idea. High Point did not struggle often on the first half, but when they did, it made the percentages and lead seem sweeter.
The actual story proved pretty boring for anyone who missed the game.
High Point suffocated Longwood. The piped-in noise in between time-outs sounded like coliseum noise, but this was a gym. And the Panthers tried to run Longwood right out of the gym.
High Point mixed a roving Duke-like man-to-man with occasional presses and tough pack-line defense near the rim. Longwood spent most of its early possessions looking for enough space to dribble, much less to shoot.
The Lancers struggled, obviously. They shot 27 percent from the field and 10 percent from three. For perspective, a mediocre team would have shot in the forties from the field and I can’t name a team that can survive a 10 percent mark from three.
High Point’s 38-22 lead came at a cost, however. Longwood began to figure the offense out. By the end of the half, High Point’s shooting had become an extension of its defense. They looked listless, relying on their athletes rather than their smarts. Contested jumpers became the norm, early in the shot clock. Contemplative nods of “my fault” replaced the high-fives and glaring eyes of the middle of the half.
Still, a 16-point lead at the half boded well. When Lorenzo Cugini and Devante Wallace hit back-to-back threes, HPU went up 18 with 16 minutes to go. The dominance returning, the team began to flex its muscles a bit. They began taking lax shots — stylish moves to the basket replaced ball movement.
All credit due to Longwood as the team switched its defense to a full-court “baby press.” They didn’t trap or fall back into zones; they merely extended tough ball pressure for the length of the court. It was nothing special; they merely extended the man to man.
HPU fell into the trap of forcing the ball to the corners and relying on height and superior jumping abilities to get its shots off. Instead of working that inside-out game, they eschewed the extra pass. The Panthers barreled through the lane for wild runners or threw up doomed threes. The adversity had reared forth and Longwood took small chunks of HPU’s lead away.
Leron Fisher, Longwood’s tiny beanstalk of a point guard, disrupted play after play. Though only credited with three steals, he deflected passes, forced ballhandlers to their weak hands of the floor and generally played the kind of defense coaches cannot teach.
Footwork, when to double, hands up — coaches yell that stuff all the time. But like “court vision” on offense, “court vision” on defense masquerades as coachable when it is usually instinctual.
Fisher disrupted the HPU pick-and roll and made entry passes to Brown ineffective; too far out to use Brown’s obvious advantage on Longwood’s slow-footed big men.
The deficit, though, proved too great. High Point persevered through the magnanimous Longwood run. Scrappy as they were, the Lancers (6-15, 2-5) didn’t have the skill necessary to overcome adversity — playing on the road against a better team. Not for lack of trying, Longwood just ran out of time.
As for HPU, Devante Wallace’s three with a minute left rewrote their narrative. Their inability to handle pressure, poor shot choices and a missed dunk that turned into a technical foul for hanging on the rim weren’t enough adversity to hurt them.
High Point (14-4, 5-1) has an athletic bunch, but Longwood exposed a panicky streak that could haunt them down the road. That’s not to say they can’t figure out how to deal with quick guards and keep their composure under duress. They won’t let every led dwindle from 18 to 4, nor will they start every game on an 18-6 run.
High Point’s narrative of triumph belongs solely to them. If they don’t make better decisions, they won’t win the Big South Tourney. If they do, I’m sure there will be some invented adversity they overcame.
We know, like Longwood does, that High Point has talent. Now they just need to get their stories straight.
They need to pen the finish to the narrative before they run out of time.