Bulldogs weather inconsistent play with hope of better days ahead

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Ron Lievense can finally exhale after his 22nd season as Barton College men’s basketball head coach but he’ll be the first to tell you that he would rather still be coaching the Bulldogs.

Unfortunately, Barton’s season ended with a 110-95 loss to Lees-McRae in the NCAA Division II Conference Carolinas tournament semifinals Saturday in Banner Elk. The Bulldogs finished 17-13 overall and 12-6 in Conference Carolinas, good for third place.

The loss to Lees-McRae, the eventual Conference Carolinas tourney champion, put a period on a season that began in October with a boatload of question marks, even though Barton tied for first place with Limestone in the preseason coaches poll. However, for the first time in Lievense’s 30 years as a head coach, he didn’t have a senior on the team. While there was definitely talent throughout the lineup and on the bench, the Bulldogs often played like a team that lacked, if not experience, the overall maturity to weather all the storms that came up during the season.

After an impressive showing against defending NCAA Div. I national champion North Carolina in a preseason exhibition game, Barton started the season with three straight losses before winning seven of its next eight in its best stretch of the campaign. That included Lievense’s 400th win at Barton against St. Augustine’s on Nov. 17, an 89-85 win over then nationally No. 21-ranked UNC Pembroke in Wilson Gym and a 74-66 victory over Virginia Union, one of four wins by Barton against NCAA tournament teams. The Bulldogs also defeated conference rivals Lees-McRae and King, the Conference Carolinas regular-season champion, both of whom ended up getting NCAA bids.

“We knew going into this year the that schedule we were playing was going to be very difficult and our guys did a great job of playing against that level of competition,” Lievense said. “To beat the level of teams that we did, we’ve never done that. So there’s a lot of positives there. I know our guys probably don’t understand but I, as a coach, understand that level of people we beat.”

Barton was riding high when archrival Mount Olive came to town Jan. 10 for a showdown for first place in Conference Carolinas. The Bulldogs and Trojans were both 6-0 but Barton was coming off big wins against Lees-McRae and King and had played well in a 59-54 home loss to then No. 18 Virginia State, which is the No. 1 seed in the East Regional.

After leading for the most of the game, Barton saw the Trojans hit the game-winning shot with 29 seconds left in Mount Olive’s 76-75 win. The Bulldogs were never the same. Barton lost four of its next six, including an overtime defeat at North Greenville, and its hopes of a regular-season championship were all but over.

But the Bulldogs rallied to win five of their last six regular-season games, including four on the road and then defeated North Greenville in the first round of the conference tournament.

It’s those kinds of streaks that indicate why Barton finished just above .500, but also offer a glimpse of hope for next season when everyone returns, ostensibly, a year older. Statistically, it’s hard to pinpoint why the Bulldogs struggled at times. Their season averages are better, albeit not overwhelmingly, than their opponents in just about every category and Barton ranked in the top half of the league in most categories. The two most striking cases in which the Bulldogs underperformed the league average was in points allowed (eighth out of 10 at 82.4 points per game) and 3-point field goals and attempts (ninth in the league 198 for 490). However, Barton’s 40.4-percent accuracy from 3-point range was second in the league and the Bulldogs led Conference Carolinas with an overall field-goal percentage of .485.

If their statistics will reveal anything about the Bulldogs this season, it will be in the game-by-game and not the season averages since Barton tended to peak and valley.

Lievense touched on that tendency as he outlined the three biggest shortcomings he thought the Bulldogs had this season — offensive efficiency, defensive intensity and, his favorite, rebounding.

“I felt like there were times that we didn’t value the ball the way a veteran team would value the ball,” he said. “I thought our defensive intensity was not consistent. … That’s a key for us, a parameter of what we work on every day.”

Barton averaged 37.1 rebounds per game while its opponents posted a norm of 34.2.

“There were times we just absolutely dominated teams on the board because of the emphasis and the work we put into it,” Lievense said, “and there were other times that we didn’t compete on the boards.

“I thought lack of consistency in those three areas was the difference between us being an NCAA team and finishing third in the conference.”

But overall the veteran coach was encouraged by what he saw from a team that was hampered with injuries, including season-long maladies for starting sophomores Isaiah Buck-Lowman and Michael Boykin. Barton had four players average double figures in scoring, including junior transfer Bobby Stenborg, an All-Conference Carolinas first-team selection, and Buck-Lowman, a second-team pick.

“I’m really proud of how this team grew and how our sophomores played like juniors and how some of our juniors played like seniors,” Lievense said. “I’m proud that these guys didn’t waver down the stretch. … I really just hope that everything we threw at them this year will carry over next year.”