BUIES CREEK, N.C. — It was a victory that won’t be reflected on the official won-loss record of the University of Rio Grande men’s basketball team.
Head coach Ken French, his assistant coaches and, most importantly, his players could care less, though.
The RedStorm rallied after blowing an early double-digit lead and held on down the stretch to post a 67-65 win over NCAA Division I Campbell University, Wednesday night, in front of 1,007 fans at the Pope Convocation Center.
The contest was considered an exhibition for Rio Grande (4-7), but the victory is believed to be the first for the school against an NCAA Division I foe since the Bevo Francis-led team of 1953-54.
However, the loss does count for the Fighting Camels (3-7), a member of the Big South Conference.
“Unbelievable. I said earlier that when you hit rock-bottom, you have to bounce back and we did,” said French, referring to his team’s 16-point loss at Salem International on Monday. “I am so proud of the group of guys in our lockerroom. We didn’t have an identity and I know it can leave as quick as it comes, but we’re going to savor this one.”
Rio Grande jumped to an early 14-2 lead before Campbell went on a 12-0 run to tie the game at 14-14 following a jumper by Leek Leek with 12:02 left in the first half.
However, Rio senior guard Kaleb Kimber - playing in front of family and friends who made the 2-1/2-hour drive from his hometown of Salilsbury, N.C. - connected on a three-pointer with 10:40 left before the intermission to give the RedStorm a lead they would never relinquish.
“I know (Campbell) never led and, fortunately, we didn’t have to face that adversity, but I’ll tell you this, they came at us hard,” French said. “We withstood their punches and managed to punch back ourselves. The resiliency of our guys - how everybody stepped up and made plays - was unbelievable. I’m so proud of them.”
Rio Grande finished the first half with an eight-point lead and pushed the lead back to double digits, 44-34, when freshman guard D.D. Joiner connected on a jumper to cap the RedStorm’s first possession of the second half.
The Fighting Camels twice closed the gap to one point - 55-54 following a three-pointer by Leek with 8:24 left to play and 58-57 after a pair of Reco McCarter free throws with 5:31 remaining - but managed to gain the lead.
Campbell trailed 65-63 after a bucket by Trey Freeman with 2:00 left and that’s how things stayed until the closing moments when a tip-in by junior forward Karl Moore with 8.6 seconds remaining essentially sealed the win.
The Fighting Camels made a two-point game again on a jumper in the lane by Marvelle Harris with 1.1 seconds left, but the RedStorm successfully inbounded the ball and ran out the clock.
Joiner led Rio with 23 points, while also adding 10 rebounds. Kimber finished with a season-high 11 points and Moore had a season- and game-best 12 rebounds, while junior guard Jermaine Warmack had a game-high nine assists to go along with five points, two steals and seven rebounds.
The RedStorm also tallied a 56-35 edge in rebounding, including 28 offensive boards which helped to produce 24 second chance points.
“Our guys really got after it,” said French. “I could go down the list and without hesitation tell you that everybody who got in the game contributed in some way. D.D. showed he can be a special player, Jermaine was a warrior - I could go on and on.”
Campbell, which played without the services of its leading scorer Darren White, who is sidelined with a hand injury, was led by Freeman who tallied 18 points, seven assists, six rebounds and three steals.
Leek added 16 points off the bench, Darian Hooker tossed in 12 points and Harris narrowly missed a double-double by finishing with nine points and nine rebounds for the Fighting Camels, who next will make a trip to the Pacific Northwest to take on 14th-ranked Gonzaga.
“Our record may not show it but, trust me, this one counts,” French said. “When our guys see it on the ESPN ticker, try to tell them it doesn’t count. Could it jumpstart us? Absolutely. We have to be careful not to let this game be the one that defines us. The challenge now - my challenge as the coach - is to sustain the success. Hopefully, though, this is the kind of win that will look back on as a signature win down the road.”
Rio Grande continues its southern road swing on Friday night in Daytona Beach, Fla. at Embry-Riddle, the No. 4-ranked team in NAIA Division II.