It had all the makings of a trap game for the College of Charleston.
The Cougars had won their 20th game of the season earlier in the week against Western Carolina and had clinched an all-important first-round bye in next month’s Southern Conference tournament.
The Cougars faced an opponent — Gardner-Webb — who on paper was not a big-name school and came from an inferior conference in the Big South.
And that’s exactly what it turned out to be.
Kevin Hartley scored 14 points and Tashan Newsome added 12 points to lead Gardner-Webb past College of Charleston, 55-52, in an ESPN BracketBuster game Saturday afternoon before a crowd of 3,823 at TD Arena.
It would have been only human nature for the Cougars (20-9) to take the Runnin’ Bulldogs lightly.
But like Division-II Anderson University, which beat the Cougars, 65-49, back in December at TD Arena, the Runnin’ Bulldogs were not intimidated by their surroundings. Gardner-Webb had played a tough non-conference schedule, beating DePaul (71-59), playing Iowa tough and losing to Illinois by a single point.
“Gardner-Webb is a good team,” College of Charleston coach Doug Wojcik said. “I don’t think we took them lightly. We were prepared, but you’d have to ask the players that question.”
Charleston forward Trent Wiedeman said the Cougars did not take the Runnin’ Bulldogs for granted.
“I don’t think it had anything to with that,” Wiedeman said. “Gardner-Webb is a very, very good team. They are very well coached. We were prepared for them. We just didn’t make enough plays down the stretch, and that’s what it came down to.”
The Cougars’ poor shooting in the second half — 9 of 31 from the floor, including just 1 of 13 from 3-point range — played a major role in the loss.
“We were not able to make shots down the stretch,” said senior guard Andrew Lawrence, who led the Cougars with 16 points. “That’s what it came down to. We’ve got to compete. We gave them second chances on some rebounds and we’ve got to make some plays, myself included, down the stretch. We missed a lot of shots we normally make.”
The Runnin’ Bulldogs got up by as many as nine points in the first half, but the Cougars used an 11-0 run to close the gap and led 30-27 at halftime on Anthony Stitt’s 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The Cougars led, 34-29, early in the second half on Lawrence’s putback with 16:55 to play, but Gardner-Webb wouldn’t go away, answering with a 11-2 run of its own over the five minutes to grab a 40-36 lead on Jarvis Davis’ layup.
The game was tied at 49 as both teams had multiple chances to seize momentum. But it wasn’t until Hartley’s putback with a minute left to play that the Runnin’ Bulldogs finally broke the tie for good.
Hartley and Newsome each hit two free throws with less than 20 seconds to play to secure the victory.