High Point aiming high in NIT despite loss of top two scorers

High Point is one of four teams nationally with a 2,000-point scorer and two-1,000 point scorers. Unfortunately for the Panthers, two players who have accounted for 3,487 of those points will be on the bench when they open the National Invitation Tournament at South Carolina on Tuesday.

John Brown and Adam Weary are two of the biggest reasons High Point has claimed at least a share of four consecutive Big South Conference regular-season championships. Brown, the two-time Big South Player of the Year, and Weary, a second team all-league pick, were hoping to lead the Panthers over the proverbial hump and into the NCAA Tournament. Then, in a span of eight days, both suffered season-ending injuries.

Brown fractured a bone in his right foot late in the first half of High Point’s dramatic Senior Day win over Winthrop on Feb. 25. Weary went down with a left knee injury less than five minutes into the Panthers’ Big South Tournament quarterfinal win over Longwood on March 4. The short-handed Panthers would fall to eventual champion UNC Asheville in the following day’s semifinals.

“It was definitely difficult,” said redshirt junior forward Miles Bowman Jr. “I’m not saying it wasn’t.”

Difficult, yes. Debilitating, no. The fashion in which High Point responded to Brown’s injury lent insight into the character of the team, according to seventh-year head coach Scott Cherry.

“John encouraged the guys at halftime of the Winthrop game,” Cherry recalled. “He goes out with about four and a half minutes to go, the doc looks at him and he knew that he was done. He had his moment of time where he was really, really upset. Then he got up and went into the locker room. When I went into the locker room to talk to the team, they were all laughing. I don’t know what they were talking about or what he said to them or what they said to him but I felt better that they had a light attitude. There wasn’t a look of fear, a look of ‘Oh no, what are we gonna do?’”

What High Point proceeded to do was to nudge a five-point halftime lead out to 15. Playing without Brown, on a national television stage, in front of an overflow home crowd, the Panthers held on for an 87-85 victory to join Winthrop atop the league standings. Two days later, with Brown on crutches on the bench, Cherry’s squad thumped Presbyterian, 80-60, to secure a spot in the NIT.

To say Brown, a 6-8, 210-pound forward, is High Point’s driving force would almost certainly be an understatement. He rates second all-time in player efficiency rating, an advanced statistic kept by since the 2009-10 season. He’s appeared on SportsCenter’s Top Plays 10 times with an array of electrifying dunks. He’s the only player in Big South history with 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, 150 blocks, 150 steals and 150 assists. He is, arguably, the best player in Big South history. But with Brown sidelined, Cherry sensed the rest of the team assumed an added sense of ownership.

“We’ve been a basketball team that we needed John but when he went down, the team kind of took on a different personality in that they almost said to themselves, not in a negative way, ‘You know what? It’s our time now,’” Cherry said. “We’ve relied on him so much and everything’s gone through him. You know what, it’s my time to shine. None of them said that but you could almost see this look in their faces.”

Perhaps no one stepped up more than Bowman. Adversity is nothing new to the 6-6 forward from nearby Winston-Salem, N.C. A transfer from Delaware State by way of Louisburg College, Bowman has undergone three knee surgeries. Twice, he tore his ACL. Another time, he tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus all at once.

By the time Bowman logged two minutes against Presbyterian on Jan. 9, more than two years had passed since his last game action. He totaled 18 points and 12 rebounds in his first nine games. Bowman surpassed that in 28 minutes in the Big South semifinals against UNCA, tallying 23 points and 16 rebounds. It was his second double-double in five contests, a stint during which Bowman is averaging over 17 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.

“It’s been amazing,” Bowman said. “It’s still unreal that I’m able to come back after two years and do some of the things that I was doing before. It’s been amazing. I’m just happy to play, happy to be back out there playing again with my teammates.”

Cherry is emphasizing the opportunity High Point has before it in the NIT. The Panthers notched the program’s first-ever postseason win last March in the CIT, a year after they nearly topped eventual champion Minnesota in the NIT. Cherry wants his team to treat the experience as a prelude to next season, when the Panthers will permanently be without Brown, Weary, fellow 1,000-point scorer Lorenzo Cugini and starting point guard Haiishen McIntyre, all of whom are seniors.

At the same time, Cherry is reflecting on the accomplishments of a quartet of seniors that has steered his program to 77 wins. High Point is the first Big South team since Gregg Marshall-led Winthrop to win four consecutive league titles, and is one of just four programs nationally with such a current streak. The others are Kansas (Big 12), Gonzaga (West Coast) and Stephen F. Austin (Southland).

“I just hope people can realize what these kids have been able to accomplish,” Cherry said. “Are we happy with not making the NCAA Tournament? Absolutely not. It’s our goal. It’s what we want. It’s what everybody wants. These kids have done everything for us the right way, though, and I think we need to celebrate everything they’ve done as a group along with the other guys who have been here and helped them.”

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