Not many friends and family have gotten to see former Topeka High graduate Onzie Branch play at the Division I level for Gardner-Webb.
They will get a chance to on Monday night as the Runnin’ Bulldogs will play at No. 8 Duke at 6 p.m., which will be televised nationally on ESPNU.
“I think it’s a great experience first and foremost, but I think it sets up perfectly if we go in there and execute the game plan we can definitely come out with a dub,” Branch said. “They play UCLA on Thursday and they’re coming off of finals so they’re probably overlooking us so we’re just trying to go in there and execute our game plan and try to get this dub.”
A number of people have reached out to Branch to show their support and tell him their plans to watch the game on TV.
“I definitely have a lot of people looking out for the game,” he said.
Branch and his teammates held a practice at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Sunday when they arrived, which helps them get a feel of the arena although it will be much different at game time with a packed raucous crowd.
“It’s a great experience to be in such a legendary gym like that,” Branch said. “It’s kind of smaller gym than what you would expect, but I definitely think it’s going to be a great experience.”
Branch, a 6-foot-6 senior forward, is averaging 4.6 points and 3.4 rebounds in 15.1 minutes a game as a reserve for the Big South Conference school located in Boiling Springs, N.C.
“Right now I come off the bench and bring energy and just be a junkyard dog and do what I got to do to pick my team up whether that’s battling on the floor for a ball or hitting the glass or step up and hit a jumper, whatever it is,” Branch said.
Gardner-Webb (6-5) comes into the game having won four of their last five, but Branch sees areas the team still needs to improve.
“As far as improvements I think we have to get our edge back on the defensive end,” Branch said. “We’ve let a couple close games get away where we just traded stops and didn’t string together stops. I think we definitely can play with more of a sense of urgency on the defensive end.”
Duke (7-2) enters the game with a 107-game winning streak at home against non-conference opponents. The Blue Devils are led by potential future NBA Draft lottery picks Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, which Branch is looking forward to the challenge.
“I’m definitely looking forward to playing against one of the top teams in the country and a couple of lottery picks, definitely looking forward to that,” Branch said.
Branch graduated from Topeka High in 2010 and played two seasons at Cloud County (Kan.) Community College before starting at Gardner-Webb in 2012 where he’s played in 45 games averaging 3.5 points.
“It’s a blessing honestly just to be at Division I basketball player and has been a learning experience and I’m enjoying it—from school to on the court to my teammates, my coaching staff, it’s just a great experience,” said Branch, who listed his most memorable games when he scored a career-high 13 points at Iowa and his 9-point, 12-rebound effort at High Point last year.
His younger brother, Shon Sanders, is a senior at Topeka High and the two talk on a regular basis with Branch giving him advice on making it to the next level.
“I talk to him all the time about just trying to impact the game by doing all of the little things right, being a better teammate, being a better leader, and everything else will come,” Branch said. “Of the court, I tell him to handle his stuff in the classroom that way he doesn’t have to go to junior college and that he can go to whatever school he wants to academically. As far as him on the court he definitely has the potential to be one of the best players in Topeka I believe and I think his future is really bright.”
And Sanders will be one of the many watching Branch in action on Monday.