Caleb Tanner has always had range. From his days at Floyd County to his current career at Radford University, he’s never been shy about pulling up from long distance on the basketball court.
But even great shooters sometimes need to be reined in a bit.
“He had been taking some pretty ambitious ones so far this year,” Radford coach Mike Jones said with a chuckle. “I was on the verge of having a short conversation with him, but his confidence was so high that I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to let it ride a little while.’ ”
On Wednesday night, Tanner’s long-range wizardry was a big reason the Highlanders pulled off one of the greatest upsets in program history, a 63-60 victory at Notre Dame.
Tanner scored a season-high 20 points on 7-for-11 shooting, including a 6-for-9 effort behind the arc.
“As a shooter, every shot that I take, I’m confident that it’s going to go in,” said Tanner, speaking by phone Thursday morning en route to Akron, Ohio, where the Highlanders face Duquesne on Saturday. “Those are shots that I’ve shot thousands and thousands and thousands of times in my basketball career up to this point.”
A senior, Tanner was making just his second career start as guard Carlik Jones sat out with a one-game suspension. He hit a trio of 3-pointers in the first half, including a bomb from roughly 30 feet out that cut Notre Dame’s lead to 24-21 with about six minutes left before the break.
“When I saw the way the first one went in, I kind of had a feeling he was feeling pretty good that day,” Mike Jones said. “Then I just said, ‘I’m not saying anything. We need every one of them. Have at it, my man.’ ”
Tanner did. His biggest came with just under five minutes remaining, when he curled off a screen well outside the top of the key and drained a catch-and-shoot 3 to give RU a 59-53 lead.
“You can’t hesitate while you’re shooting the ball,” Tanner said. “We knew our backcourt was going to have to come to play and have a good game for us to have a chance.”
RU (3-0) got its third-ever victory over teams currently in the ACC. The first two were against New River Valley neighbor Virginia Tech in 1999 and 2014.
The defending Big South Conference champions were 12.5-point underdogs against the Irish, but entered the night feeling like the matchup was much more even than that.
“I thought we had a good game plan going in,” Jones said. “We knew what their strengths and weaknesses were. We knew what our strengths were relative to their weaknesses. I thought we were able to get the guys to understand what we needed to do to win, and then they took it from there.”
Senior Ed Polite Jr. gave Radford 16 points and 11 rebounds, providing a stellar inside complement to Tanner’s perimeter shooting.
“I thought that he was really aggressive,” Jones said. “We knew that he was going to have a mismatch with whoever guarded him because those guys aren’t quite as quick as he is or quite as athletic. He’s a really intelligent guy. He understands where his advantages are and when to take them.”
The Highlanders also got 11 points from Travis Fields Jr. and six from Devonnte Holland (Martinsville).
As a veteran team fresh off a trip to the 2018 NCAA Tournament, RU didn’t go bananas after this one, but the staff and players made sure to enjoy it. Jones said he ranks it just behind the 2015 double-overtime win against Howard (his alma mater) and last year’s Big South title game on his list of memorable victories.
“It’s definitely up there,” he said. “Definitely us making a run in the tournament last year would be number one. Us beating Georgetown and Penn State my freshman year is up there.
“Any time you can go into a high-major school, an ACC program, and get a win, it’s definitely a great feeling.”