Quick aside for starters: Unlike pretty much every D-I conference (and most in D-II), not everyone makes the GSC tournament. Since it’s such a large conference, only the top 5 teams in each 8-team division make it, and the #4-5 teams have to play a first-round game while everyone else gets a bye. This works to give teams an incentive to get their division’s #3 seed, but the top seeds don’t fare much better. I’d prefer to see a system that rewards the top teams with an additional bye round, like what the Big East is doing this year (only without all 16 teams).
Thursday’s loss at Delta State put the Bisons in peril of missing the GSC Tournament for the first time since before I came to Harding as a freshman in 2002. The overtime loss to Delta State dropped HU to sixth in the GSC West, so they not only needed a win on Saturday against OBU, but also an SAU loss to UAM. They got both, and their reward is a first-round GSC Tournament game against West Alabama on Wednesday night. The winner will face Christian Brothers on Friday and will have to win two more games beyond that to win the conference and reach the NCAA Tournament.
Delta State 78, Harding 72 (OT)
The Bisons blew a second-half lead on Thursday in Cleveland, allowing this game to go into overtime, and they initially came out strong in OT only to fall in the end. They spread out the offense in a major way: four players took at least seven shots from the field, and two more took at least five. Stephen Blake led the team in both points and assists with 14 and 3.
Harding defended Delta State’s shots rather well and shot adequately enough themselves to have won the game, but this one was decided on the boards and with turnovers. The Bisons lost both of those battles (23-12 in turnovers) and eventually lost the game. Kevin Brown was the only Bison who contributed more than three rebounds, with an impressive fourteen of his own, but he and Steven Barnett were the biggets turnover culprits, with five each.
Delta State only had eight steals, so I presume that most of the Bison turnovers were sloppy plays of some sort. Although the Harding offensive attack is not what it has been in recent years, the turnover explosion is not typical of the Bisons’ play this year.
Chad Akins led the Statesmen with 20 points, and DSU otherwise had trouble putting the ball in the basket.
Harding 72, Ouachita Baptist 64
On Saturday night, the Bisons needed a win against the coaches’ preseason pick as the GSC West favorite: Ouachita Baptist. I can’t fault them, since I wavered between them and Christian Brothers on my own pick. The Tigers had little to play for, except to spoil the Bisons’ season, but that wasn’t enough.
Once again, the Bisons spread out on offense, with a little more success than they had against Delta State. Turnovers were still a problem (17), but 49% shooting and a good job on the boards proved to be enough to hold off OBU.
Tiger guard Rowan Ledbetter led both teams with 31 points, but his 11 turnovers and 11 field goals missed made his impressive scoring effort pretty much a wash overall. OBU proved not to be as deep as the Bisons, giving only six players more than a handful of minutes. The Bisons, on the other hand, had a fairly regular rotation of nine players. Only Trent Morgan and Sam Brown played more than 24 minutes.
Matt Garner and Matt Ragsdale were the Bisons’ double-figure scorers in this game, and Garner made every shot he attempted. Everyone who played took at least four shots, and no one took more than nine. That’s about as balanced an offense as I’ve ever seen on paper. Sometimes you’d like to see someone step up as a scoring leader, but it’s hard to complain about a win like this one.
West Alabama wasn’t a particularly strong team this year finishing 5-7 in conference play and winning a three-way tie to get the #4 seed in the GSC East. The Bisons, despite a losing conference record of their own (6-8), definitely have a shot at getting to a Friday rematch against Christian Brothers. Their only impressive win all season was against North Alabama on Valentine’s Day, but they finished 1-5 against the top three teams in the GSC East. In inter-division games, UWA was blown out at Delta State and won at Henderson State.