The Runnin’ Bulldogs (4-4) took a 62-60 lead on Newsome’s three-pointer from the right wing with 14 seconds left to stun the Assembly Hall crowd. Newsome’s shot was the third of four lead changes in the final minute – in a game that featured 12 lead changes and eight ties.
Kevin Hartley drilled a trey from the left wing with 54.6 seconds left to put Gardner-Webb on top 59-58 – its first lead since the 8:20 mark – but Brandon Paul responded after a 30-second timeout with a runner from the right side with just 39 seconds left to put the Fighting Illini (7-0) back on top.
Illinois, coming off its first ever Maui Invitational title, entered the game on the cusp of the national top-25.
Gardner-Webb worked the ball around on the ensuing possession, with Newsome sinking his go-ahead shot with only four seconds left on the shot clock. Illinois called timeout with 12 seconds left and got the ball to Paul – the team’s leading scorer at 19.7 ppg – who found Griffey open after the forward slipped a screen and popped open past the top of the key.
The game was a defensive struggle early on, with Gardner-Webb’s matchup zone forcing numerous Illinois miscues. After nearly five minutes of action, the Illini led 2-0. Gardner-Webb started to take advantage of its defensive prowess from there, eventually taking an 8-6 lead with 12:11 left in the opening period and extending that margin to 21-13 with 4:54 left before halftime.
Illinois responded with a 10-0 run to take its second lead of the game, 23-21, with 2:33 left. Onzie Branch responded with a jumper at the 1:40 mark to tie the game, but a steal with eight seconds left led to a Brandon Paul free throw that put the hosts up 24-23 at intermission.
Each team traded baskets early in the second half, with Max Landis scoring five quick points to give Gardner-Webb a 28-27 lead with 19:01 left. A trey from Paul with 18:09 left put Illinois back on top, but Hartley drained a three-pointer for a 32-30 lead for the ‘Dogs – and Joseph Bertrand made a short jumper to tie the game with 17:30 remaining.
Donta Harper drained a long three late in the shot clock to put the ‘Dogs up 35-32 moments later, and Illinois would not get the lead back until 7:46 remained in the game. After Gardner-Webb took a 45-40 lead on a Landis Jumper with 9:34 on the clock, Illinois had its biggest spurt of the game – a 13-2 run – to go up 53-47 with 6:34 left.
Hartley knocked in a three-pointer to slow that surge, and Harper and Newsome each connected on a pair of free throws with just over three minutes left to cut the lead to one. After Illinois pushed its lead back to four on a Griffey free throw with 2:30 left – Harper got in the lane and was fouled. The 6-foot-6 swing man knocked down two more free throws with 2:14 left to make the score 58-56, and neither team would score until Hartley’s final trey of the game with 54.6 seconds left.
Harper led Gardner-Webb with 16 points – the third game in a row he has scored at least 16. Newsome added 11 points in 24 minutes and Landis had 10. GWU shot 50.0 percent in the second half (12-of-24) to keep pace with Illinois, and shot 40.7 percent for the game.
The rebounding battle was dead even at 29, with both teams pulling down 10 offensive caroms. Illinois did have a 16-5 edge in second-chance points.
Illinois got 13 points apiece from Griffey, D.J. Richardson, Paul and Bertrand, and shot 54.2 percent in the second half - but only 43.8 percent for the game after a red-hot trip to Hawaii. The Illini coughed up 18 turnovers in the game (seven GWU steals), and saw Gardner-Webb turn those miscues into a 10-2 edge in transition.
Gardner-Webb will enjoy an eight-day break from the hardwood, returning to action at home on Monday, December 3, against UVA-Wise in Paul Porter Arena.