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MOUNT OLIVE — The Barton College men’s basketball team took another step in its maturation process during Saturday’s finale of the 52nd Annual Pickle Classic inside Kornegay Arena on the campus of the University of Mount Olive, and in the process, granted veteran head coach Ron Lievense a major career milestone.
Having built a 14-point lead with 14:27 remaining against Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association opponent Saint Augustine’s University, the Bulldogs, lacking any seniors, saw that advantage dwindle to a single possession five times in the final 3:34.
Finding a late defensive stop that would allow Barton to add to its lead proved difficult.
Sophomore guard Michael Boykin, the 2016-17 Conference Carolinas Freshman of the Year, took over down the stretch, sinking 10 of Barton’s final 12 points en route to a 79-73 victory, the 400th win for Lievense at Barton in his 22nd season.
He owns a 400-215 record in Wilson to go along with a 460-362 mark as a college head coach.
The Bulldogs, who defeated Virginia Union on Friday’s opening day of the Pickle Classic, improved to 2-3 ahead of a stern challenge at UNC Pembroke on Tuesday. Saint Augustine’s, without the services of 6-foot-7 senior post Quincy January, remained winless through four games.
Barton shot 25 for 57 for 43.9 percent accuracy and prevailed despite allowing the Falcons to make 30 of 56 shots for a 53.6-percent clip. That figure blossomed to 16 of 28 (57.1 percent) in the second half as Saint Augustine’s kept making shots to stay within shouting distance down the stretch.
But behind Boykin’s foul shooting and penetration off the dribble, Barton amassed a 21-7 advantage in points from the free-throw line. Boykin made all eight of his free throws as the Bulldogs finished 21 of 24 at the line.
“Mike was absolutely huge for us,” Lievense said. “He drove that basketball. He didn’t back down, and then he was able to hit the free throws. It’s one thing to drive, but it’s another thing to hit the free throws.”
Barton led by as many as six in the first half. Zach Grant, a junior, picked up the start at point guard and made consecutive 3-pointers to get the Bulldogs out to a quick start. Twice more in the half, Barton amassed six-point leads, the last coming on a three-point play from sophomore Jeff Gordon. But Saint Augustine’s, beaten on the backboards by a 30-23 margin, got an Anthony Cadogan putback just before the first-half buzzer sounded, sending the Bulldogs into halftime with a 38-34 lead.
Coming out efficient in the second half, Barton took its first double-digit lead and stretched it to its biggest lead of 14 on a reverse layup from junior Bobby Stenborg and a baseline jumper from freshman Blake Burdack.
Yet the Falcons turned in a key run to keep it close the rest of the way. After a Kenneth Collins runner, the 3-point shooter was fouled behind the arc. He made all three free throws; then buried a 3-pointer to make it 56-48. Rashad George finished off a 15-4 Saint Augustine’s run with a floater to make it 58-55 Barton with 5:54 to go.
From 64-61, Stenborg and freshman Isaiah Reddish worked a shrewd give-and-go on the baseline. It ended with Stenborg finding Reddish for the layup and the foul, and Reddish finished off the three-point play for a 67-61 Barton cushion with 3:10 remaining.
Stenborg had 15 for Barton, while Reddish chipped in 11 off the bench.
Following a Kenneth Collins floater to make it 67-63, Boykin began his takeover from the foul line. He made a pair of free throws to stretch the lead out to six, and drew a foul driving to the basket with 51.4 ticks left. Those two foul shots made it 73-68.
Saint Augustine’s kept the pressure on Barton, scoring baskets through contact on three straight trips down the floor. The last such instance, a three-point play from Tyre Gathright, made it 73-71 Barton with 40.6 seconds remaining.
But Boykin responded with another tough layup, slashing his way into the paint and scoring with 29 seconds to go. He led the Bulldogs with 20 points and handed out six assists. Grant, in 22 minutes of floor time, also had six assists.
“We practice on it every single day,” Boykin said of the free-throw line. “Coach makes us shoot 50 free throws every day before we come into practice. And it all paid off in the end.”
Gathright, who led all scorers with 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting, had one more gasp for Saint Augustine’s. His jumper make it 75-73 with 19.6 seconds to play and brought forth a Falcons timeout to set up a trap.
Barton nearly fell into it twice, with Reddish inbounding to freshman Jake Kakar. Kakar was tied up with a jump ball, but the Bulldogs owned the alternating possession arrow. Reddish inbounded to Kakar again and was forced to use one of two remaining timeouts after getting trapped in the corner.
This time, Reddish found Boykin, who was fouled and made a pair of free throws with 11.7 seconds to go.
Collins missed a desperation 3-pointer for the Falcons, and a pair of free throws from Reddish accounted for the final margin.
“They hit some pretty tough shots,” Boykin said. “But we’ve got to keep our composure, lock in and win basketball games.”
After the final buzzer, Lievense approached every player on the bench and repeatedly exhorted: “That’s a great win! That’s a great win!”
Indeed, No. 400 certainly was.