Former Virginia Tech player Isaiah Wilkins leads unlikely Longwood to the NCAA tournament | College Sports

By | March 6, 2022

CHARLOTTE – As a freshman, Isaiah Wilkins played for a Virginia Tech basketball team that reached the Sweet 16, and came within a missed tip-in of upsetting Duke. He was a high energy, do-it-all-off-the-bench player with a seemingly bright future for the Hokies.

A coaching change at Tech, and two transfers later, Wilkins is ending his college career fulfilling that promise at the most unlikeliest of places.

“This journey has been really good for me and I think it was destined for me to end up here,” said Wilkins, now a senior forward at Longwood. “I’ve learned to embrace every part of my journey.”

Wilkins scored 19 points and grabbed 18 rebounds Sunday to lead Longwood to a 79-58 victory over Winthrop in the Big South championship game, earning the Lancers’ first-ever NCAA tournament bid.

Longwood (26-6), which rolled through the conference regular season 15-1, never trailed Sunday, playing a decidedly more decisive game than it had in its hard-fought quarter and semifinal wins the past two days.

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The Lancers forced 19 turnovers leading to 32 points and went 10 for 17 from 3-point range, leading by as many as 28 early in the second half.

As they took their courtside seats 40 minutes before tipoff, a group of superstitious Lancer fans, who made the nearly four-hour drive from Farmville, urged each other to sit in the same spots they did for the Lancers’ semifinal win over Upstate on Saturday .

“Same order as yesterday,” they said, passing the message down the line like a game of telephone.

But Sunday’s game didn’t come close to following the previous day’s script. The Lancers trailed Upstate by as many as 16 points in the first half in the semifinal before storming back for the win. Sunday, leading 45-27 at halftime against Winthrop made for a far less dramatic finish.

Not that it showed on the face of Longwood coach Griff Aldrich.

Even as his Lancers were putting the finishing touches on the historic blowout victory, Aldrich was coaching each possession as if the game were tied, as if he were willing it through one of the seven league games it won this season by five points or fewer.

“I probably am too task oriented,” Aldrich said, as two of his players seated next to him chuckled. “That’s just how I’m wired.”

Leading by 20 with under 7 minutes to play, when Justin Hill’s layup rattled off the rim, Aldrich’s facial expression better resembled the look of a motorist standing before his car, hood popped and smoke pouring out, than a fourth-year coach on the verge of sending his school to its first NCAA tournament.

That, Hill said, is just Aldrich’s way.

“On the sideline. in practice. Everywhere,” said Hill, who scored nine points to go with eight rebounds and five assists. “That just keeps us focused and keeps us going.”

The biggest smile on the coach’s face during the game Sunday came from the oversized cutout of his head that a Longwood fan displayed behind the Lancers’ bench.

But after the win, Aldrich oozed emotion, wiping tears away as he did a post-game television interview, and wrapping players, assistants, school officials, family, fans – anyone who wandered close enough for him to grab – in big hugs.

And not shoulder to shoulder taps, but bear hugs. The kind people share when they really mean it.

Aldrich came to Longwood four years ago, after making an abrupt turn from successful careers in law and business. As interesting as his personal journey is, Aldrich attracted a roster full of players on similarly circuitous paths, seven Division I transfers among them.

North Carolina Central transfer Jordan Perkins scored 8 points, East Carolina transfer Deshaun Wade had 7 and UC Riverside transfer Zac Watson added six.

“There are plenty of players who are talented enough to play and be a part of our basketball program,” said Aldrich. “But the question is, do they have the other elements where they really want to grow? If you don’t have a spirit and a mentality that you want that, it’s probably not going to work at Longwood.”

Perhaps no player better embodied that than Wilkins, playing for his third school and fourth head coach in his college career.

He said, after his encouraging freshman year at Tech, his career had gone “downhill.” Aldrich tried to recruit him to Longwood a year earlier, but Wilkins opted to stay in the ACC, transferring to Wake Forest. But after another unfulfilling season, he was ready for Aldrich.

Wilkins didn’t come to the Lancers for a chance to get back to the NCAA tournament. He admitted he had “no idea” if that was in the team’s future. He came for the chance to play and to be a veteran leader, and be part of a team and a community that he thought suited him.

Now, he got all that and a trip back to the college game’s biggest stage.

“To see what we built here this year is unbelievable,” said Wilkins.

mbarber@timesdispatch.com

Twitter: @RTD_MikeBarber

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