Gardner-Webb women’s basketball was in its second season under head coach Alex Simmons, who helped lead the Runnin’ Bulldogs to a 16-15 (10-8) record in her inaugural campaign after taking over the program from Rick Reeves.
Simmons took the job after spending the five previous years as an assistant at Ole Miss. She helped attract three-straight top-20 classes to Oxford during her tenure and helped guide the program to two WNIT appearances.
After the 2017-18 season, Simmons had offers to take another assistant position at other schools, but she felt prepared to take the next step in her career.
“I felt like I was ready to be a head coach,” she explained. “(Gardner-Webb) didn’t have the greatest year the year before I came, but I could tell just by watching and looking, they had some really good pieces. My family lives in Charlotte now, and so it put my family close to my parents, and my sister was a junior at Gardner-Webb at the time. It was one of those decisions that just made sense.”
Her 2018-19 roster had nine underclassmen and just two seniors, and much of that youth came back for 2019-20 with nine of 14 players returning. Plenty of quality carried over, too, with three of Simmons’ top four scorers remaining in Boiling Springs.
Gardner-Webb opened its 2019-20 with a forgettable 74-49 disappointment at the hands of Charlotte, but the group didn’t fold. Instead, it followed the 25-point defeat with four triumphs by an average margin of more than 21 points.
On Nov. 30, the Runnin’ Bulldogs entered a home date with Furman riding that win streak. They didn’t come out hot, though, falling behind by 12 at the break. A 23-point third quarter brought Gardner-Webb back into the game, and it continued to battle into the fourth. It wasn’t enough, though, as the home team fell, 72-67, to end the string of Ws.
A loss at Virginia Tech ensued, then another measuring-stick contest versus Delaware at home Dec. 15. This time, the ‘Dogs had enough to get over the hump, 67-65, behind 20 points via Carley Plentovich, who converted four times from deep on the night. The tight final score was indicative of the game, which had 13 lead changes and required a charge drawn by Plentovich with 0.3 seconds to play to secure the victory.
“One of the things that me and Carley have focused on with her being a senior, being our leader, is taking care of the defensive end, and letting the offensive end come to her,” Simmons said in the post-game interview. “She made a senior play. That’s a gutsy play. That’s something that seniors should do.”
Next, Gardner-Webb began a five-game road stand that dipped into Big South play. The team finished its non-conference schedule first with a second slim win in a row, 65-62, at Mercer as four ‘Dogs scored in double figures, led by Gabrielle Caponegro and her 13 points and seven rebounds. Gardner-Webb found its last out-of-league contest more difficult, falling 84-56 at Georgia ahead of its conference slate.
Big South Play
Gardner-Webb opened its conference schedule at Longwood, the last-place finisher in the Big South in 2018-19. Unfortunately for the ‘Dogs, the Lancers began their march out of the basement against them, taking the victory, 80-70, despite Alexis Hueston’s first career double-double on 19 points and 10 rebounds, dropping Gardner-Webb to 5-5 on the season.
The team responded with a 79-52 controlling at Charleston Southern before ending its five-game away stint with a 63-58 loss at Hampton on Jan. 4. Finally, Gardner-Webb came back to Boiling Springs, and did so in style with a 71-59 conquering of Winthrop. Plentovich was the top ‘Dog on the score sheet, notching 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including a 4-of-6 mark from deep. Jhessyka Williams and Lauren Bevis chipped in double-digit scoring efforts of their own, too.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs absorbed two tough losses, giving them a 7-8 (2-4) record. They would lose just three more times the rest of the season.
Gardner-Webb won seven of its next nine games, including two triumphs over High Point and a victory versus Hampton, two top-four Big South squads. A loss at Presbyterian on Feb. 18 paused the winning ways, but the ‘Dogs recovered to close out the regular season with four wins a in row, concluding a 13-7 Big South campaign, good for fifth place.
The final showdown of the regular season provided Gardner-Webb with perhaps its biggest W of the season: a 77-69 home triumph over Campbell, the regular season Big South champs.
The score was 53-52 in Campbell’s favor at the start of the fourth quarter. On the first possession after the break, Savannah Plentovich drilled a triple to put Gardner-Webb on top. That kicked off a 16-2 Runnin’ Bulldogs run to begin the period, pulling Gardner-Webb away and into victory position.
It was also senior day, which meant plenty of emotions and celebrations, especially for a side as senior-heavy as this one. Senior days are always meaningful, but Gardner-Webb helped hook up something special: a surprise visit from center Corinna Wiegand’s parents all the way from Germany.
“Being able to surprise Coco with her parents, I’ve never been a part of something like that,” Simmons said after the game. “She didn’t really say much about it, but I know that was something she really wanted was for her parents to be here. I actually joked with her last night at dinner that we were just going to FaceTime them, so when they walked in, she was legitimately surprised.”
Big South Tournament
The Campbell win capped off a positive run to end the season, and Gardner-Webb had tons of momentum heading into the Big South Tournament.
“I think we are confident right now,” Simmons said after the Campbell game. “Right now, it’s just about staying focused and understanding what we want and what our goals are, but we definitely will hopefully have some confidence going into the conference tournament. You’ll have your normal jitters going into the tournament, but with a senior-led group, a senior-led team, we should be able to get over that pretty quick and just stay focused and stay the course.”
Gardner-Webb entered the conference tournament as the No. 5 seed, which put it into the quarterfinals of the event with a date against No. 4 seed Hampton.
The Big South Tournament played its first round on March 10, with the quarterfinals set to tip off March 12. However, the coronavirus pandemic halted the tournament, and Gardner-Webb never got to play its game with Hampton. The momentum built to end the regular season meant nothing in the face of the virus, and it was an unsatisfying end that concluded the 2019-20 campaign for the Runnin’ Bulldogs.
Gardner-Webb finished 18-11 (13-7) for the season, an improvement from Simmons’ first year in Boiling Springs. Like so many other teams in 2020, Gardner-Webb’s season was cut short by no fault of its own, and it was robbed of proving itself on the court to earn the Big South’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid, which is something Simmons said she and her staff felt was in the cards.
“Unfortunately, this year we didn’t get to finish our season, but I had that same feeling that I had as a player when it comes to winning championships,” Simmons explained. “I think everybody around me had that same feeling of, we just felt like we were going to win the conference tournament this year. We were peaking at the right time, we were doing all the right things at the right time, so everything just felt right and it felt good. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to finish.”
That doesn’t change her outlook for her program moving forward. Simmons likened the sudden ending of the season to an injury – are the Runnin’ Bulldogs going to let something out of their control deter them, or will they continue to push through and take care of what they can?
“How are you going to nurse your injury, how are you going to rehab?” she said. “Are you just going to go through the motions, or are you going to go as hard as possible to get back to what you were doing?
“We had no control over our season ending,” she added. “We’re using it as, ‘What are we going to do about it? How are we going to respond?’ We’re not dwelling on the fact that our season was ended.”