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After being in many close games, Radford was ready to win the one that mattered most

March 12, 2018 Columns No Comments

Mike Jones had a pretty good angle on the shot by Carlik Jones that would end the Big South Tournament. As he saw it go up, he had one thought in mind, knowing that his team had been down this road many times before.

“Get in there,” the Radford mentor said.

When the shot went down and time expired, his team had avoided overtime, as he had hoped. But more importantly, they won the Big South Tournament and had the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It will be the first trip there for the program since 2009 and marks the high point of a journey that began seven years ago after the program was not in a good place.

The Highlanders had just one win in 2010-11, owing in small part to four wins being vacated due to NCAA infractions that ultimately led to hiring the then-VCU assistant coach. After a 6-26 first season, including a 2-16 Big South mark – numbers that were not a shock considering what Jones inherited – the Highlanders have had double-digit wins every year, with this season being the fourth winning season in the last five years. They reached the CBI in 2013-14 and 2014-15, winning a game each year.

While that is all part of the overall journey, this year’s championship story is told largely going back to last season, a 14-18 overall season that included an 8-10 mark in Big South play. The Highlanders had just one senior, and Carlik Jones had to sit out as a partial academic qualifier. All of that added up to growing pains being likely, and that’s exactly what happened. There were signs of potential, like wins over UNC Asheville and Winthrop to begin conference play, but also signs that this team wasn’t there yet, like a five-game losing streak later that included three at home.

“We just had a lot of inexperienced players playing minutes last year,” Mike Jones said. “When you have that, whether they’re freshmen or juniors, they’re going to struggle. We struggled early on last year, then toward the end, we just kept squeezing those guys and challenged them.”

Last year was the first significant playing time for players like Ed Polite, who was a first team All-Big South selection this year, and key reserve Caleb Tanner, while other starters like Donald Hicks and Christian Bradford were in the first Division I season. Carlik Jones, meanwhile, did all he could to make the most of his redshirt season.

By the end of the season, they had grown into something more, reaching the Big South semifinals for the first time since 2010. That gave the team a taste of the tournament and a hunger for more. The coaching staff saw what they had, which would be part of a message for later.

“When we were preparing for the Campbell game in the semifinals, we were telling guys, we are 40 minutes away from playing for a championship, and that resonated with those guys,” Mike Jones reflected.

Through those growing pains and later success came poise, something which developed even further this season as a more experienced team. By the time the championship game came around, it was nothing new for this group, and Jones felt this team was as comfortable in those as any other game. They are more than used to it by now.

“We’ve played a lot of close games over the last two years, particularly this year, so that was par for the course,” he said. “We’ve been in those situations so many times that we’re all used to it.”

This season, the Highlanders played 11 games that were decided by five points or less prior to the championship game. Two were overtime games, and they beat Big West regular season champion UC Davis by 10 in another overtime game in Las Vegas. They played nine such games last season, all but one in Big South play, along with two overtime games that were decided by bigger margins.

Last year’s growing pains also produced a team ready to win, and on a few occasions this year, they looked the part. They played at Ohio State in their second game of the season with no fear, and even rallied after a bad start to the second half to make it a ballgame. There was the aforementioned win over UC Davis. And after taking care of Presbyterian in the Big South opener, they beat traditional powerhouses Winthrop and UNC Asheville to start off conference play 3-0, a start that probably helped them weather a three-game losing streak in February as they followed that up with four straight wins to end the regular season in second place.

The Highlanders now get to take all of this development and poise into the NCAA Tournament against LIU on Tuesday. The Blackbirds made a run to the title game as the fourth seed in the Northeast Conference and won a decisive road game for the title. But if history is any guide, this will be a close one. If that’s the case, Mike Jones and his players will have a very good chance.

It will be a movie they have seen plenty of times in recent memory. They will know what to do.

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