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Despite losses off the court, Gardner-Webb keeps winning

Several Runnin' Bulldogs players suffered tragedies during the season

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. — You don't have to watch Gardner-Webb long to realize, this is a team that's together.

"We know how each other plays," guard/forward Jhessyka Williams said. "We know how each other works. It kind of makes it more special when we get on the court together and we're all locked in on the same prize."

The team went 21-0 in the Big South including a tournament title. 

That pursuit of perfection is guided by their coach, former Pat Summit pupil, Alex Simmons.

"This year was the year that what we wanted finally came together," Simmons said.

There's that word again: Together.

The Runnin' Bulldogs use it a lot.

Every team in the tournament plays together. Every team has a bond.

But there aren't many who have one like this team.

"A lot of people have no idea what a couple of us went through," senior Lauren Bevis said.

Lauren Bevis, a sharp-shooting guard, was dealt a heavy blow just weeks ago, when her mother Amanda was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

"Just going through that, really the last month, just playing for her, playing for my whole family," Bevis said. "I'm not the only one that has gone through some family stuff."

Williams, the team's star, put together an All-America caliber season, averaging nearly 20 points and 9 rebounds per game. 

She was named Big South player of the year. 

But in the middle of this season, she was told her father Jessie's cancer had recently returned.

"My dad has never missed a game," Williams said. "I was kind of in pieces. I'm always used to looking up at my dad in the stands. And just to see he wasn't there, it was hard for me."

Williams and Bevis' parents have still been able to attend most games. 

But just before the season started, point guard Ki'Ari Cain's mother, Chiffon Hodge lost her lifelong battle with sickle cell disease. 

She was 44.

"I really did feel like my world was over," Cain said. "My mom taught me how to be a warrior. She prepared me for what's to come. She literally taught me all my lessons. It's just hard to really wrap your head around it when she done fought for so long. You will never think that this is gonna be the last time I talk to my mom."

Cain decided to remain with her team. 

And her team showed up. 

The entire roster attended her mother's funeral in South Carolina and sat in the front row.

"Just to let her know we have her back," Williams said. "We're not gonna let you down. You're my sister for life."

The pastor called on the team to stand.

"I knew that I had a whole team behind me," Cain said. "I knew I was gonna be alright."

A season of winning, despite so much loss.

"You would think that we would have a terrible season because of all this," Bevis said. "But just playing for our family, we're playing some for something bigger than us. And that was kind of, you know, why we pulled it all together."

Together on the court for at least one more game, and together as teammates for life.

"Winning brings happiness, winning brings smiles," Simmons said. "Winning brings a sense of pride about who we are and where we come from."

Gardner-Webb tips off against Utah at 7:30 p.m. in Salt Lake City.

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