Meet Lipscomb: the 15 seed that scores, loves Fortnite and will play UNC on Friday
From left to right: sophomore Michael Buckland, sophomore Kenny Cooper, junior Rob Marberry and junior Garrison Mathews of Lipscomb speak with the media on March 15 in the Spectrum Center. Photo courtesy of Kristi Jones, Lipscomb Athletic Department.
CHARLOTTE — They hail from a private Christian college in Nashville with an enrollment of 4,585.
They have won eight games in a row, and 12 of their last 13. Their leading scorer is a junior criminal justice major who, along with the rest of his team, loves to play Fortnite: Battle Royale.
These are the 15th-seeded Lipscomb Bisons, in their first ever NCAA Tournament. And on Friday afternoon, they will try to win their first ever NCAA Tournament game against defending national champion and two seed North Carolina.
Behind guard Garrison Mathews and his 22.1 points per game, the Bisons went 23-9 and 10-4 in the Atlantic Sun Conference. They beat Florida Gulf Coast in the ASUN Tournament title game, 108-96, to clinch the conference’s autobid.
Lipscomb’s 108 points set a record for the most scored in an ASUN title game. The Bisons led 60-31 at halftime and stretched their lead to 32, then saw FGCU rally back to within five.
Lipscomb won with some timely free throws late, but the game still exposed some major flaws. FGCU scored 65 points in the second half and rattled Lipscomb with a fullcourt press it struggled to break.
“I wish the first half stuck with me more, but the second half does,” junior forward Eli Pepper said, “because it reminds me we’re about this close not being able to sit right here and be in this tournament.”
Lipscomb has since worked on breaking a press, and head coach Casey Alexander said that he doesn’t even remember the second half of the ASUN title game. After learning its opponent on Selection Sunday, Lipscomb enters Friday with the necessary confidence of an underdog.
The team knows the history of 15 seeds. Since 1985, two seeds have won 94 percent of first-round matchups against them. But Lipscomb’s players also know about the upsets: Middle Tennessee over Michigan State in 2016, conference foe FGCU over Georgetown in 2013 and Lehigh over Duke in 2012.
“It's something we always talk about,” junior forward Rob Marberry said. “We're not here just to have fun and shoot around with the UNC team. We always have it in the back of our heads and always going to practice like we're going to win.”
Lipscomb is planning to take on the Tar Heels by playing the same style as always. The Bisons also use a small lineup, with no starter over 6-foot-9. They push the ball, average 82.6 points per game and make 81. threes a game.
Mathews is 12th in the country in scoring average, and he’s coming off a 33-point performance that earned him 2018 ASUN Tournament MVP honors. He holds Lipscomb’s single-game scoring record with 43.
Marberry is averaging 16 points per game and shooting 61.9 percent from the field this season. His teammates rave about his passing ability from the low post, where he can draw double teams and kick it out or hit Mathews on a cut to the basket.
“I don’t think they’re going to pay as much respect to Rob as they should,” Mathews said. “He’s not a big guy, but he can score the heck out of the ball.”
The Bisons have played four teams in the NCAA Tournament field this year: Purdue, Tennessee, Alabama and Texas. They lost all four by 10 or more. A matchup against UNC in a quasi-home game could quickly get out of hand for Lipscomb, and its head coach knows it.
“What I'm worried the most about is just their relentlessness on that end of the floor,” Alexander said. “They totally know that they're Carolina and totally know that Carolina plays a certain way and they embrace that and really good at it.”
Friday’s game trumps everything else in importance, but the Bisons have enjoyed their NCAA Tournament experience so far. When Lipscomb returned home after its ASUN title, 500 fans were waiting for the team at 11 p.m. in the pouring rain. All of the school’s fan tickets for Friday’s game sold out rapidly.
Mathews decided not to bring his Xbox One to Charlotte, a move he now admits was a mistake. With more free time than expected in their hotel near the Spectrum Center, Lipscomb’s players have used Fortnite as their main source of entertainment. The online game has a setup similar to that of The Hunger Games: 100 players eliminate each other on a shrinking map until one man is left standing.
Marberry said winning a win in Fortnite is a pregame tradition for the Bisons. A survey of the locker room confirmed that Zach Flener, a first-year guard, leads the team with 11 solo victories in the game. Pepper estimates that he’s logged around 150 hours on the game (over six days).
It may all end tomorrow against UNC, which is 29-1 in first round games since 1985 and hungry for a repeat. But for now Lipscomb is embracing the moment.
The key: we have to be better than them for 40 minutes one time, that's it,” Alexander said. “One time for 40 minutes. That's how we'll approach it.”