Three regular-season Big South titles, three top seeds with first-round byes in the conference tournament for High Point. Three talented rosters and three outstanding opportunities to deliver the first NCAA Division I Tournament bid in program history. Zero NCAA Tournament tickets punched.
Each of those three promising seasons resulted in one-possession losses in the conference tournament quarterfinals. First, it was a 61-60 loss to Liberty in 2013 after they were unable to get a shot off in the final second. Second, it was Winthrop guard Andre Smith draining three-pointer over two defenders with 0.5 seconds remaining in 2014. And last year, it Panthers' senior guard Devante Wallace misfiring on a three-pointer at the overtime buzzer to give Gardner-Webb a 72-21 victory.
Agonizing but not destructive, at least not for this "resilient" group, as forward Lorenzo Cugini calls his team.
"Our core guys have gone through a lot," he told HERO Sports. "We stress the little details like practicing hard every day, best effort, best of your ability. Those conference tournament losses could have been small details and we to stress little things on and off the court. Whether that's arriving on time or doing well in the classroom, things translate to other areas."
Cugini is one of four seniors and eight total upperclassmen on the squad, seven of whom average 15 or more minutes per game for head coach Scott Cherry. But the senior from suburban Akron, Ohio, and graduate of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School (no, the LeBron James references don't get old for him) is the only High Point veteran shooting above 60 percent from beyond the arc.
Actually, he's the only player in Division I shooting above 60 percent (minimum 2.5 made per game). Of the other roughly 4,500 players in D1 Men's Basketball, the second highest three-point percentage belongs to Michigan's Duncan Robinson, at 55.7%. Not close. Through 16 games, Cugini has hit 43 of 71 three-point attempts (60.6 percent) after entering the season with a career percentage of 39.9.
"My teammates get me the ball in the right situations. The summer work has shown up this season by staying consistent with my rotations. Putting up the same shot has helped with the high percentage."
Those right situations come in small doses, meaning his overall volume is modest (2.7 made on 4.3 attempts per game). And that's just fine for Coach Cherry, an adaptive and teacher.
"Coach preaches inside-out. Start inside and get to the rim or at least a touch in the paint to start the offense," Cugini said of the former North Carolina player (1989-93) and captain on Dean Smith's 1993 national championship team. "He stresses getting to the rim more (than shooting three-pointers) because it opens things up and creates more opportunities on the outside."
Cherry isn't leading High Point to wins over the likes of Duke, Kansas and Michigan, programs his Tar Heels defeated en route to that 1993 title, but the Panthers are competing with power conference, tourney-bound teams, including Texas Tech and North Carolina State.
"I'm not big on moral victories, especially because we had a great chance to win this one," the 44-year-old former George Mason, Western Kentucky and South Carolina assistant said following a season-opening four-point loss at Texas Tech. I'm proud of our guys – we need to build on this. We need to treat every opponent like a Big 12 opponent, because if we come out like this we can play with anybody." Cherry's refusal to settle and accept moral victories isn't lost on his veteran team.
“We’re playing to win the game and we believe we’re going to win," Cugini said. "It doesn’t matter if it’s North Carolina State and the ACC, it’s just another opponent. We want to win and expect to win this game as much as the next game against a Division II team. Every game is treated the same. The next game is the biggest game.”
For High Point (14-2 overall, 5-0 in the Big South) the biggest game is a trip to Winthrop on Jan. 14. Eventually, the biggest game will be March 4, when the Panthers, a likely top-two seed, will play in the Big South Tournament quarterfinals against a team that finished in the bottom half of the standings for the fourth consecutive season. And, after three years of heartbreaking losses by a combined four points, Cugini and his teammates intend to rewrite history and not only bring the first tourney berth to the 112-year-old university, but also the first non-play-in game NCAA Tournament victory since Winthrop defeated Notre Dame in 2011.
"When we (seniors) leave here, hopefully we’ll leave some tradition."
Photo: Norvelle Kennedy (Cugini, top)