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With no seniors populating the roster, the Barton College men’s basketball team has had to rely on players taking an invisible jump in terms of on-court experience.
The junior trio of Zach Grant, Matt Woods and Bobby Stenborg? They’re basically seniors by the time postseason basketball rolls around. Similarly, Michael Boykin, Jeff Gordon and Isaiah Buck-Lowman haven’t officially shed the sophomore label, but by all intents and purposes, the trio can call themselves juniors on the floor.
In Tuesday’s quarterfinal game of the 2018 Conference Carolinas tournament, all six combined to continue the Bulldogs’ late-season surge. Grant had a career-high 22 points and made 6 of 10 3-point attempts, and his five cohorts all entered double figures as Barton administered a clinic in unselfish play with a 91-74 victory in the team’s final game in Wilson Gym this season.
Barton, the No. 3 seed, improved to 17-12 and will travel to the highest-remaining seed, No. 2 Lees-McRae College, for Saturday’s semifinal game at 2 p.m. Banner Elk will be the location for the semifinals after No. 8 seed Belmont Abbey pulled off the upset of top-seeded King 81-74 in Bristol, Tenn. Abbey will face No. 5 Limestone in the other semifinal after the Saints excused No. 4 Mount Olive 81-79 in other quarterfinal play Tuesday.
North Greenville, the No. 6 seed, finished its season at 12-17 as the Bulldogs won their sixth game in their last seven outings.
“These guys moved the ball and moved the ball and moved the ball and did a great job against a very good basketball team that can beat anybody,” Barton head coach Ron Lievense said.
Barton, which finished 33 of 62 from the field for 53.2 percent accuracy, had an assist on 25 of its field goals and made a season high 15 3-point shots on 29 attempts. Boykin handed out seven assists, with Grant adding five. Stenborg and Woods each accounted for four assists. Meanwhile, Buck-Lowman had a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Barton only turned it over on nine occasions.
It was a back-and-forth affair until midway through the first half, when North Greenville grabbed its final lead at 16-14 on a layup from Kovi Tate off an inbounds pass. However, the Bulldogs quickened the pace in transition and used a 21-3 to seize control at 35-19 with 5:05 left until halftime. Grant had a pair of 3s during the run, with Woods adding another. Stenborg’s three-point play staked the Bulldogs to their 16-point lead. Off the bench, Woods made all four of his shots from long range to finish with 12 points.
“The rim was feeling pretty big today,” Grant said. “It was feeling nice.”
Even as North Greenville shot 52 percent in the first half on its way to a 29-for-53 showing for a 54.7-percent clip, Barton remained efficient offensively, owning a 47-32 halftime lead.
The Bulldogs started quickly in the second half, taking their largest lead of 26 at 65-39 on Gordon’s 3-pointer with 15:04 to go. But after a Woods 3 gave Barton a 75-49 lead, the Bulldogs began taking poor shots and relying heavily on efforts from beyond the arc. That allowed North Greenville, behind Matt Moore — who 28 points on 10-of-14 shooting — to make one final push. The Crusaders railed off a 21-6 run to close within 81-70 with 3:30 to go before back-to-back 3-pointers from Grant and Woods subdued the visitors for the final time.
Does Grant consider himself a senior at this point in his junior campaign?
“Yes, I do. I believe so,” he said. “Me and Matt Woods and Bobby as well. (Stenborg) wasn’t with us last year, but he definitely has a senior mentality, and he’s playing this year like it’s his last.”
Stenborg had 16 points and eight rebounds for Barton. Boykin, last year’s Conference Carolinas Freshman of the Year, had 13. Gordon provided 10 points.
Barton had a narrow 32-28 edge on the backboards, but owned a 19-6 advantage in second chance points and turned 16 NGU turnovers into 25 points.
The Bulldogs now have a second test at Lees-McRae after the teams held serve on their respective home floors in the regular season. Lievense is a proponent of reseeding after the first round, which would have sent No. 3 Barton up against No. 5 Limestone in the semifinals and Belmont Abbey versus Lees-McRae. Instead, the Bulldogs are immediately left with the No. 2-seeded Bobcats in the semifinals.
“Our league doesn’t re-seed, which I think is really bad,” Lievense said. “Our league should re-seed in this situation when something like that happens. Evidently, they don’t see a need to it, but this is a perfect example of why you should re-seed.”