An 8-3 non-conference record and a 1-0 start in the Southern Conference heading into the new year?
"I'd have signed up for that last summer and never played a game," said Citadel basketball coach Duggar Baucom.
That's the big picture for Baucom's 9-3 Bulldogs, who are headed into the meat of their SoCon schedule with their best 12-game record since 1979-80.
And yet a 110-94 loss on Saturday to a surprisingly good Longwood team at McAlister Field House reminded the Bulldogs of how thin the line between victory and defeat can be.
Longwood, picked to finish 10th in the Big South, used a switching man-to-man defense to build a 17-point lead in the first half, then held off a Citadel rally to improve to 10-5, its best start since 2000-01.
Isaiah Walton scored 29 points and point guard Shabooty Phillips had 23 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists for the Lancers, who held The Citadel to 28.9 percent from 3-point range.
"They are built on defense and they did a great job," Baucom said. "The bottom line is they played way better than us, executed better, played better. But if you score 94 points, you probably should win."
Point guard Lew Stallworth scored 23 points with seven assists to lead The Citadel, which also got 17 points and 14 rebounds from senior center Zane Najdawi. Sharp-shooter Matt Frierson recovered from a scoreless first half to finish with 17 points, and sophomore Kaiden Rice added 16.
The loss should serve as motivation for the Bulldogs, who begin the SoCon wars with a road trip next week to two of the league's best teams, Wofford and Furman.
"I think it's a good wake-up call," said Frierson. "We had a good week of practice, but we started really slow today. It's a good reminder that we can't get down 17 to start the game. We're not going to win many games doing that."
• 6-7 senior Zane Najdawi always seems to heat up as conference plays near, and his 17 points and 14 rebounds marked his third double-double in the last four games. He was 5 of 9 from the field and made all seven of his free throws, also blocking three shots.
• Frierson's 17 points moved him just five points away from the 1,000-point mark for his career, and he's made at least one 3-pointer in 50 straight games.
• The Citadel's defense has been improved this season, holding foes to 41-percent shooting overall and 30.5 percent from 3-point range. But the Lancers attacked the Bulldogs' press relentlessly, shooting 56.4 percent from the floor and making 16 of 32 from deep.
"You have to attack The Citadel," said first-year Longwood coach Griff Aidrich, a lawyer-turned-coach. "They come at you in waves, and if you can beat that first wave, you are much better off to go ahead and attack and try to score. If you beat that first wave and wait, they will come at you again."
After The Citadel took a 63-60 on a Frierson trey with 14:01 left, the Lancers answered with nine straight points, including 3-pointers by Phillips and Sean Flood. And after the Bulldogs closed to within 80-79 on a Rice trey at 8:14, Longwood scored on 10 straight possessions to pull back in front by 102-91.
"They just attacked us offensively and we gave up way too many shots at the rim," Baucom said. "I was most disappointed with our defense. Our defense looked like it did last year, and that's the most disappointing thing.
"But all this will do is get us re-focused. We'll use this not so much a loss but as a lesson, and be a lot more focused at Wofford."
• The Citadel already owns a SoCon win over Mercer, but opens the new year with three games against top contenders — at Wofford and Furman next week, and at home to East Tennessee State on Jan. 10.
"I told the guys, we're getting into the real stuff now," Baucom said. "There are teams in our league that, if we play like we did today, we could get beat by 40."