BY CHRIS LEE
It’s late in Lipscomb’s game with NJIT on February 25, and a subtle sense of anxiety is settling in over Allen Arena.
A lot’s on the line. Lipscomb, tied atop the Atlantic Sun basketball standings, is playing for a conference title, perhaps for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth, and it’s Senior Night, to boot.
In the first half, the Bisons were hitting every shot in sight and defending well. But the ability to guard in the half court has abandoned Casey Alexander’s team, and the jumpers aren’t falling. There’s barely four minutes to play, and that lead is one.
Everyone in the gym knows what’s coming.
When you’ve got a preseason conference player of the year, one about to average 20 points a game for the third-straight year, one who’s hitting shots that night, he gets the ball. Save fouling, NJIT does about everything it can to stop what’s about to happen next.
Garrison Mathews comes off a screen and gets the ball near the left sideline. He’s a few feet behind the 3-point line. He’s not entirely square to the basket, and the precious little shooting window he has is quickly evaporating.
The moment is etched in Lipscomb athletic director and former Bisons star Philip Hutcheson’s mind.
“If that was gymnastics, he’d have gotten about another four points for degree of difficulty because he’s fading away, a guy’s right in his face, shot clock’s running out, pressure of time and score of the game,” Hutcheson says with a laugh.
The shot goes down. Lipscomb’s leads by four, and thanks to that, and six clutch free throws from Mathews in the final 17.9 seconds, Lipscomb ekes out an 81-77 win—one that moves the Bisons to 22-6, 13-2 in the league.
And as is often the case with Mathews, it’s not how Alexander originally drew it up.
The one that almost got away
It was early September of 2014. Alexander liked Mathews, a star at Franklin High, but hadn’t offered him a scholarship.
“We had just promised somebody else at his position that we would wait until he had taken his visits and made his decision—somebody who had recruited for a long time,” Alexander remembers. “And so we have made that commitment to somebody else. It really wasn’t a reflection on Garrison at all.”
“Someone else” was Alabama prep star, Ethan Stair, who, according to AL.com, had 33 scholarship offers, including Lipscomb. He cut his list to three schools, including the Bisons.
Mathews had three scholarship offers then, and was preparing to go elsewhere.
“I was going to commit to USC Upstate,” he remembers. “It was between them and UMass-Lowell. And right at the last minute, [Alexander] called me and said [Stair] committed to Mercer.”
Alexander told Mathews a scholarship was his. Matthews accepted it the next day.
“There were a couple of other schools I really liked, but the ultimate goal was to play in front of my family,” said Mathews, who’d also been offered by Austin Peay. “I’m very fortunate about that. … God blessed me with that offer—and so I had to take it.”
Stair’s had a nice career. He’s averaging 11.6 points at Mercer in this, his junior season. But unlike Mathews, he’s not leading his league in scoring, nor was he his league’s preseason player of the year this season.
“If you coach long enough, there’s a lot of those kinds of recruiting stories,” Alexander said. “You know, it’s amazing how things like that work out. No matter how good we thought it was we could not have envisioned that we would do what he’s done. All-time leading scorer [in Lipscomb’s Division I era.] All-time leading 3-point scorer in our league, and a great four-year player.”
The master of timing and opportunity
Alexander didn’t suspect Mathews would turn into a superstar. Nothing of the first third of his freshman season hinted at it, either.
Mathews’ first game came on Nov. 13, 2015, against Santa Clara. He played two minutes, didn’t score and committed a foul in LU’s 65-63 overtime win. He failed to score double figures in his first nine games.
But Mathews soon did the one thing he does best: take his opportunity and make the most of it.
An injury to guard Josh Williams in Game 13—he was LU’s leading scorer the previous season—changed the complexion of the 2015-16, and Mathews emerged out of the blue to become a key player.
“His first 10 or 12 games of his freshman year were very typical. He’s trying to figure out what he could and couldn’t do. He wasn’t playing with confidence. And we lost [Williams], and Garrison had started to play better, and [then] had to start, and I think he was our leading scorer from that time on that freshman year.
“And so it took timing—and yeah, opportunity.”
Mathews was a shooter then. At Lipscomb, he’s developed into much more.
“His ability to get to the free throw line and to finish and or get fouled is what took us by surprise the most,” Alexander said. “He was he was always a great shooter with range, but he didn’t even he didn’t even try to get it to the rim quite as much as he has here. He’s a shot a bazillion free throws since he’s been here. … And then he has to be guarded six to eight feet off the line. That’s a pretty good combination.”
“It’s going to be, most likely, a long time before we see another guy like Garrison Mathews,” Hutcheson said. “He’s a guy that can score it all three levels, you can score at the rim, he can score at the free throw line, he can score from 3, but it’s also when he scores. Like [the NJIT game], the degree of difficulty on some of these shots was just astronomical, and his ability to kind of hit shots when you need him or take a charge when you need it, or come up with a rebound.
“He’s just a really tough kid. He takes a lot of beating, but he just doesn’t let it get to him. … He’s kind of a great example for our team. He sets the tone for the team, and I don’t know how you quantify that.”
Remarkably, a lot of what Mathews does isn’t by design.
“We do very little to get him the ball. We run motion offense,” Alexander said. “And he just gets most of what he gets because he’s the best player out there. It’s not because we’re calling his number. We don’t have isolation plays for him.
Leaving a legacy
The Bisons hope to win the Atlantic Sun Tournament, but are in a rare position of potentially earning an NCAA Tournament at-large bid if they don’t. The NCAA’s “NET” ranking—perhaps the key metric when the NCAA picks and seeds its field of 68 teams—ranks the Bisons 46th, as of Feb. 26.
That’s given Lipscomb hoops some publicity it doesn’t normally get.
“[Mathews is] the leader of a group of seniors that, 100 years from now, be known as the one that kind of moved us up another level,” Hutcheson said. “They went to the NCAA Tournament the first time. They’ve had three 20-win seasons for the first time since the NAIA days.”
Hutcheson and Alexander rave about his work ethic. Alexander says it’s afforded him some opportunities most players don’t get.
“He has really worked on his game, and when you see it over a summer—we see it from practice to practice to practice—where the guy just gets the ball to go, then as a coach, you’re you’re willing to give him some more flexibility and some more freedom to take some shots that the other guys simply don’t get,” Alexander said.
“That’s because he’s worked on them and he’s earned them. If he were taking these shots earlier in his career, I’d have said, ‘Not good enough. We need to do better.’ But his 3-point percentage alone shows that he deserves that kind of freedom. And it just opens up so much more for the rest of our team.”
Mathews has left his mark off the floor, too.
“He’s not a big talker, he’s not a loud guy, but one on one, he’s about as nice a guy as you’ll meet,” Hutcheson said. “[Former LU coach Don Meyer] said you can tell a lot about a person about how they treat people who can’t do something for them. And Gary is as nice to the random little kid who walks up and as is kind to them and as special as he would if an NBA scout walked up.”
“I’ve so enjoyed seeing him with his mother, Jane. … The way he treads here and cares for her and respects her, and that says a lot more about the basketball part.”
Mathews will have professional opportunities. He’s on the NBA’s radar, though most likely, he’d start in the G League.
There’s unfinished business in Nashville first. LU travels to North Alabama on Friday; win that, and it’ll at least share the league title with Liberty. From there, it’s the conference tournament, and hopefully a trip to the NCAAs or the NIT.
And when this chapter is over, Mathews will cherish the memories.
“I couldn’t have prayed for anything better,” he says. “And then the support from Franklin as well. They give me such amazing support. All my best friends, they come sometimes. I go to Knoxville, and my best friend from Michigan is able to make it, and all their families as well.
“It’s been pretty cool.”
Photo courtesy of Lipscomb Athletics.