Good Sport: Zero to hero

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Photo by Anthony Harrison

by Anthony Harrison

High Point University has been on a roll lately.

For years, the university slogged along quietly without glitz or glamor. But then, their campus and student life received attention from national outlets on slow news weeks. Tall tales of free ice cream, gorgeous fountains, gourmet steak dinners and other swag made attending HPU seem as much like a carnival cruise as it is a respected academic institution.

Within a decade, HPU went from a Nowheresville college to one of the swankiest and most notorious private universities in the country.

Just as with the grounds and campus life, High Point University began investing in the future of their athletic program. The Panthers men’s basketball team may exemplify this rise from relative ashes.

HPU hosted the UNCG Spartans in the Millis Center for a Big South v. Southern Conference showdown on Dec. 9. The game wound up being a showcase of HPU’s rocketing stardom.

Long-time residents may recall the turn of this latest century when the UNCG men’s basketball program habitually made a case to show up for the Big Dance, also known as the NCAA Tournament. As champions of the Big South Conference in 1996, they received entry to the first round as a 15 seed in the Southeast region and went up against the No. 2 Cincinnati Bearcats. While close, they lost, but eventually, so did the Bearcats. The Spartans then joined the Southern Conference, winning the SoCon Championship in 2001 and an automatic bid to the national tournament, where they again got trounced, this time by No. 1 Stanford. The next year, they made it to the NIT, but got shut down by eventual champs, the Memphis Tigers.

Since then, not much of a postseason peep from the Spartans.

But High Point may be gaining some steam for an eventual, similar slew of stabs at the tourney.

Since head coach Scott Cherry — you may recall him as team captain of the ’93 Tar Heels squad that won the national title — has helmed the Panthers, they’ve made postseason runs in invitational tournaments three times in a row, all in the past three seasons. They even made it to the second round of the CollegeInsider.com tournament last year, only to lose in a heartbreaker to East Kentucky.

This season, they’re playing with some fire under their asses.

As of Sunday, HPU’s record stands at 8-2. The two losses come at the hands of Texas Tech and Georgia: As members of power conferences, both programs are known to make the occasional deep run in the Big Dance.

Even more promising, neither of these losses were blowouts: Texas Tech won by four points and Georgia by only three.

What have been blowouts are High Point’s smack-downs on some of their competition.

A 24-point margin against NC Wesleyan. A 24-point margin against Longwood University. And an 18-point margin against the UNCG Spartans on Dec. 9.

Honestly, as is often the case, the final score can’t tell the whole story. The game between two Triad cities was a tale of two halves. The Spartans stuck around with the fierce Panthers thanks to slash-and-burn attacks from guard Diante Baldwin, three-balls from small forward Marvin Smith and strong post play from center RJ White.

But High Point turned it on in the second half, thanks largely to their leader apparent, No. 0 redshirt senior forward John Brown.

Since I’ve been writing this column, I’m not sure I’ve seen a competitive spirit like him in person. Brown played his wiry 6-foot, 8-inch butt off.

Despite producing a nice jumper and a huge dunk as the shot clock ran down, he was benched early as the Panthers struggled to stifle the Spartans. As he sat down, he let out what you might call a litany.

But Cherry stepped in.

“You’ve gotta relax a little bit,” Cherry said, calming the fiery forward. “You’re helping out your team.”

And the Spartans were looking for the upset, leading by as much as six halfway through the first half.

But the Panthers came back and secured an 8-point lead at the midpoint, thanks to Brown and three-point sniping by senior forward Lorenzo Cugini.

An aside: The 6-foot-7 Cugini happens to shoot 61 percent from the arc, putting him in the top five most accurate three-shooters in the country.

The second half was a purple haze.

Brown and Cugini shot the lights out, as did senior guards Haiishen McIntyre and Adam Weary, who’d have a perfect night from the floor and the line. These four starters combined for a 70-percent shooting performance, good for 49 of HPU’s 90 points.

And the guys weren’t done for the week: On the night of Dec. 13, the Panthers obliterated the visiting Virginia-Wise Highland Cavaliers 111-74.

High Point may have a wake-up call this Wednesday against the NC State Wolfpack, but in their element, they play like men among boys.

Explosive victories. Senior talent and depth. Experience in the postseason. A proven leader as a head coach.

These elements add up to possible sleeper runs and a further heightening of High Point University’s national profile.