Gardner-Webb coach: 'We did it for real'
Gardner-Webb coach Rick Scruggs had no idea what to expect from his players as he walked into the Rupp Arena locker room at halftime up 11 points over mighty Kentucky.
Scruggs, who used to coach at Pikeville College in the state, had always dreamed of playing against the Wildcats in Rupp.
Still, he had nothing. He wasn't sure what he was going to say, that is, until his cell phone rang.
"I felt it buzz and vibrate and I started laughing," Scruggs said, speaking by phone at 1 a.m. on Thursday morning while still inside Rupp Arena. "I told our guys, 'Should I pick up the phone and say I'm too busy to talk right now because we're kicking Kentucky?'"
"I tell you what," said sophomore guard and former walk-on Grayson Flittner, "it broke the ice. We were tense and we were excited about the first half, but when his phone rang and he didn't answer it, that broke the ice."
As the hour approached 1 a.m., Scruggs still hadn't listened to any of the 15 messages he received, even the call at halftime. He was still too much in awe of what had just occurred. It didn't matter that it was Nov. 7 or that it was in the second game of the regular season. Gardner-Webb beat Kentucky 84-68 and is heading to New York for the semifinals of the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer next Thursday, when the Bulldogs will play either Connecticut or Buffalo.
"It was a huge celebration in the locker room, with people throwing water all over the place," Flittner said. "I don't even know if it has hit everybody yet. Everyone is just enjoying the moment."
"I'm on cloud nine right now," said Scruggs, 51. "It's unbelievable. I can't even describe the feeling. I never would have imagined this at Pikeville. I'm living a dream right now. You dream all your life to go backdoor or shooting it to make a basket to win at North Carolina or Kentucky, and we did it for real."
This is from a man who sent Dick Vitale cupcakes a few years ago after Vitale called out Colorado State's schedule for playing a "cupcake" like Gardner-Webb. Now, Vitale is scheduled to call a Gardner-Webb game next week at Madison Square Garden.
"I may bring him more cupcakes," Scruggs said. "He seemed to like them."
Sports information director Marc Rabb said this was easily the biggest win of any kind in Gardner-Webb's athletic history.
"This is our Michigan-Appalachian State in football terms," Rabb said.
Gardner-Webb is a small school in Boiling Springs, N.C., that started as a junior college until it bumped up to a four-year school in 1969. Gardner-Webb moved up to Division I in the 2000-01 season.
The Runnin' Bulldogs have had some decent runs with Scruggs, who is now 164-164 at G-Webb; the Bulldogs won 17 games two seasons ago and 18 games three seasons ago. They won only nine games last season.
And given that rather paltry history, this program had no idea it would upset Kentucky and earn a trip to New York next week.
But Gardner-Webb's win was no accident. Scruggs said he watched Kentucky play its two exhibition games against (ironically) Pikeville College and Seattle and saw the Cats in person Tuesday night against Central Arkansas in the first round of this event.
Scruggs said he noticed in all three cases that opposing teams didn't attack Kentucky. He said he saw those three teams avoiding the Wildcats' pressure. So he took the opposite approach and wanted to go right after the Cats.
"We thought if we played fast, that would give them problems," Scruggs said. "We were up 14-0 and we maintained it from there. We did a great job of maintaining poise."
Flittner, who was a walk-on after getting just one D-I offer (Eastern Illinois), said the early run took the crowd of 19,845 out of the game. Flittner finished with a team-high 22 points.
"I was thinking we would be like Butler, winning a similar tournament last year to upset everything," said Flittner of Butler winning the NIT Season Tip-Off last November. "It was set up [for] them [Kentucky], and we spoiled it."
Boy, did they ever. Rick Giles, the CEO of the Gazelle Group, which organizes the Coaches vs. Cancer event, said late Wednesday night that it's too hard to put a number on the ticket packages Kentucky fans bought for New York. But, the promotions for the event at MSG featured the four host teams: Memphis, Connecticut, Kentucky and Oklahoma. So far, only Memphis is through to the semifinals. UConn needs to win one more game, and Oklahoma has yet to play its two games in Norman.
Rabb said there is a meeting scheduled for Thursday morning with the alumni association to contact former players to get them to MSG. It's unclear how many fans in Boiling Springs would make the trek.
"I hope the whole town goes," Scruggs said.
Flittner said he has been to New York once but didn't think many others on the team had since "it's mostly Australians and Africans." Actually, three of the players are from Australia and two from Africa (Cameroon and Senegal).
But an even bigger issue for Scruggs is the schedule. He said he would work on trying to change Tuesday's home game against North Greenville and a road game at Radford on Nov. 17. He said if he's not successful, the Bulldogs will play the game Tuesday, fly to New York Wednesday for the Thursday-Friday games, and then fly to Virginia on Saturday to play Radford later that night.
Even more amusing to Scruggs is the fact that the Bulldogs scheduled Connecticut on Nov. 20 and could face the Huskies twice in five days.
"The Gazelle Group is paying [expenses] for us to play Connecticut in New York, and Connecticut is paying us to play them," Scruggs said, noting that UConn is giving Gardner-Webb $75,000 to make the trip. "We're just a small school budgetwise."
Gardner-Webb, which is leaving the Atlantic Sun for the Big South in 2008-09, was picked eighth in the conference by the media and coaches in the preseason. Could there really be seven better teams in the A-Sun than Gardner-Webb?
"I hope the league isn't strong enough that we're eighth or 10th, since we were picked that low by one publication," Scruggs said. "If we can beat Kentucky and can't beat some of them [in the A-Sun], then our [league] is going to be tough."
And with that, a few minutes later, Scruggs was off to the bus, heading back to Boiling Springs. He was on a bus, but it sure sounded like he was floating home.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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