When his Lipscomb teammates selected players for pick-up basketball games his freshman year Garrison Mathews usually had a long wait for his name to be called.
Sitting on the sidelines, watching his teammates play, Mathews admits he began to wonder if he belonged on an NCAA Division I basketball team.
“I was probably one of the worst players on the team when I got here,” Mathews said. “I would just sit there and watch the games and wonder if I was ever going to be any good.
“I was like, `do I really think I can do this?’ It took a shot on my confidence for sure. I would get chances to play and I knew I had to keep working hard no matter what. It took me some time to get used to the speed of the game. It was tough.”
Mathews, a two-sport athlete at Franklin (Tennessee) High School, admits football was his first love. He had a gridiron heritage on his mother’s side of the family. Vanderbilt legend Dan McGugin is his great-great grandfather and his grandfather, Fred Kimbrell, was a member of the 1962 Ole Miss National Championship team.
As a tight end and a wide receiver, Mathews was good enough to play Division I. But a broken collarbone sidelined him after four games his junior year and those absences would cost him a shot at playing at the highest level of the college game.
“Football was my favorite sport back in high school for sure,” Mathews said. “I had a tight group of friends that played both football and basketball.
“It was a great experience playing with them. It was `Friday Night Lights’. There is really nothing like it.”
Lipscomb head coach Casey Alexander admits, based on Mathews first days of practice, he would have never predicted the level of greatness his guard has already achieved.
“We just had no idea he would be able to get the ball in the basket and to finish as well as he does,” Alexander said. “What he did best was stand out there and shoot threes.
“You don’t sign anybody without thinking they are going to help your team win games. But you never really know. We knew he was a really good shooter in high school, but we didn’t know how well that would translate to the college game. Nobody could have predicted it.”
THE WILLIAMS FACTOR
An ACL injury to Josh Williams, the leading scorer at the time and the best player on the team, would thrust Mathews into the spotlight around Christmas time his freshman year.
“They were big shoes to fill,” Mathews said. “I’m not sure I filled his shoes by any means.
“Working out with him, and practicing with him, I got better guarding him every day in practice and having him guard me. It was a tough transition to take his place.”
Known as “Gary” to his teammates, that player who had trouble getting on the court for pick-up games was named the ASUN Tournament MVP. He scored 33 points and grabbed nine rebounds, both team highs, in the 108-96 championship win Sunday at Florida Gulf Coast.
He was a unanimous selection to the ASUN All-Conference First Team during the regular season. He averaged 28 points during the Bisons three-game run in the conference tournament.
Mathews averaged 10.9 points a game as a freshman. His sophomore year his average jumped to 20.4 points per game, earning him his first unanimous selection to the ASUN All-Conference First Team. As a junior he is averaging 22.1 points per game and is poised to become the all-time leading scorer in Lipscomb’s NCAA basketball era sometime next season.
Alexander stresses the importance of Mathews making the transition from a dual-sport athlete to just concentrating on basketball.
“Being able to focus on basketball alone was the one element of his puzzle we didn’t know about,” Alexander said. “We couldn’t look forward and predict that when he started focusing on basketball he was going to be a different player. That is an important piece of his success.
“There was a lot of natural improvement. His strength, his conditioning and his diet really changed. One of the real assets of his game is his physical play as a perimeter player.”
A CASE OF MATURITY
Mathews is no longer a secret to opponents. This has been the first year where he has been receiving extra attention.
“We literally do very little for him as far as calling his number,” Alexander said. “We have a few select plays where we will call his number from time-to-time. But the lion’s share of his productivity is because he is just a good player and he gets it done on his own.”
Alexander has not only watched Mathews hone his skills, but he has also seen him control his emotions more effectively each season.
“He is less volatile as a player,” Alexander said. “He would sometimes let that get the best of him. We seldom see that surface any more. He has shown a lot of maturity in every way.”
Forward Rob Marberry also points to Mathews even-keeled emotional approach to the game. There are no tantrums. There is no sulking. And when things are going good there is no gloating.
“Garrison has a level-headed attitude and composure through it all,” Marberry said. “If he makes a mistake in a game he could choose to just go and be a recluse, but he chooses to be a part of the team.
“He doesn’t get frustrated. He will miss a layup, miss a pass or make a turnover and for him it is about moving on to the next play. He shows a lot of restraint in his game which he might not have shown his freshman or sophomore year.”
NEVER STOP LEARNING
Mathews needed to recover from several surgeries before the start of the 2017-18 season. Jordan Romine, who was once a basketball manager for Middle Tennessee State’s women’s basketball team, worked out with Mathews during the summer.
“I wasn’t a big time shooter back in high school,” Mathews said. “I maybe averaged 14 points a game in high school. I had to focus on my game more. I worked out more. I had a football body. I lost some body fat.
“I have worked super hard to get my shot right. Jordan has helped me a bunch in transforming my game. He worked me really hard this summer. I couldn’t have done it by myself.”
Mathews is shooting 38.9 percent from 3-point range this season, an increase from his 35.2 percent rate his sophomore year. He credits Romine with helping him make that leap.
“We worked out 1-on-1,” Mathews said. “When you are in a game you think back to your work outs. He helped me take my game to another level.
“It wasn’t just setting up and taking a shot. We worked on shots coming off the dribble and off of down screens. It has helped me take my game to another level. I wouldn’t have been able to do that by myself.”
THE CONFIDENCE FACTOR
For Mathews it is all about his confidence level on the court. He talks about being in a zone against FGCU. He gives the credit to his teammates.
“They give me great screens, great passes and great looks,” Mathews said. “When you have teammates that are unselfish and throw you the right passes you can get off great shots.
“I felt like every time I touched the ball (against FGCU) I wanted to shoot it. I was probably a little selfish at times. Fortunately, most of my shots were falling.”
Mathews has not been without his struggles on the court this season. He admits his confidence level was challenged around midseason.
“It is all about confidence with me,” Mathews said. “I started out the season shooting really well, but early in conference play it was harder for me to find a shot. Teams knew me better than the non-conference teams we played. My shooting percentage went way down.
“It was frustrating. I had to trust what I was doing. It got into my head a little more than it should have and it hurt my confidence.”
Alexander remembers how Mathews adjusted to increased playing time in the wake of the loss of Williams. He saw the gradual increase in Mathews’ confidence level.
“We weren’t having a good season,” Alexander said. “It took Garrison awhile to have that comfort level, but by the end of the season he was our best scorer. He has literally never looked back since that day.”