SoCon Hoops 2021-22: League race heating up down the stretch

Just when it seemed the league race seemed easy to figure out following Saturday’s results, it is now harder to figure out although even with its 73-70 hiccup at home to UNC Greensboro, Chattanooga still seems primed for a regular-season title and the No. 1 overall seed in the Southern Conference Tournament, which commences March 4 at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville.

Both games Thursday night went down to the wire, with Chattanooga falling at home for just the second time this season and first time in league play, while Samford remained red-hot on its home floor this season, as the Bulldogs improved to 10-2 on their home floor with a thrilling 100-99 overtime win over VMI at the Pete Hanna Center Thursday night. Following Wednesday and Thursday night’s results in league play, the standings are below as follows.

The race from No. 2-No.9 is going to be interesting over the final stretch of games as we head towards the eventual end and tournament in Asheville.

Chattanooga has three games left, needing just to win one. However, while it may seem easy, the road to a regular-season title could have some snags. The Mocs face a tough VMI squad in a suddenly huge game for both the Mocs and Keydets now, with tip-off set for 4 p.m. inside McKenzie Arena.

The Mocs were able to claim a close, 78-74, win at Cameron Hall back in late January. A win in that game, or a Furman loss to Wofford would be enough to see the Mocs clinch the No. 1 overall seed heading towards Asheville in a couple of weeks.

Chattanooga also has a tricky road game at East Tennessee State (Feb. 23)–a team it beat by 30 to open conference play–but is a fierce rival, and then will close out league play against one of the hottest teams in the Southern Conference at the moment, in the Samford Bulldogs.

UNCG 73, Chattanooga 70

The Spartans remain locked in a battle for positioning for the upcoming Southern Conference Tournament, and following their three-point win in the Scenic City, now sit locked in a four-way tie for third in the league standings after improving to 16-11 overall and 8-7 in conference play.

With the win, head coach Mike Jones’ Spartans now have wins over the top two teams in the league standings on the road this season, having claimed a 58-56 win over Furman back on Feb. 5.

So many times in conference play this season, its been either Keyshaun or Kobe Langley that have had a major say in some clutch wins for UNCG. Tonight, that man was Kobe Langley, as his triple with three seconds remaining saw the Spartans assume a 73-70 lead over the Mocs, and it would prove to be the all-important points in helping the Spartans to another huge road win.

Then with 1.2 seconds remaining, Langley would steal UTC’s ensuing inbounds pass to help the Spartans hold on for the win. The win also marked UNCG’s third-straight road win, and it came despite a furious rally late in the game by the Mocs, who trailed by 12 points, 65-53, following a De’Monte Buckingham three-pointer with 4:10 remaining.

However, the Spartans used what was a 17-5 run down the stretch, as the Mocs tied the game, 70-70, on a David Jean-Baptiste triple with 32.5 seconds remaining. However, with ice in his veins, Kobe Langley’s long three-pointer helped the Spartans hold on for the win.

The win by UNCG was eerily similar to the Spartans win at Bon Secours Wellness Arena back on Feb. 5 against Furman, as UNCG was able to survive an 18-3 run over the final 6:25 of the game to emerge with a 58-56 win over the Paladins.

With wins in four of its last five games, the Spartans are now starting to look much the part of the defending champion and also look the part of a basketball team that is not only dangerous in Asheville, but one that could very well repeat as tournament champions once again in March.

Let’s not forget, there’s still plenty of championship experience and know-how on first-year head coach Mike Jones’ roster. Players like Mohammed Abdul-Salam, Bas Leyte, Kaleb Hunter, and Keyshaun and Kobe Langley were all important pieces on the UNCG championship team of a year ago.

In Thursday night’s win at Chattanooga, the Spartans got a career-high 23 points from Leyte, as he was one of two Spartans in double figures, with Miles Jones adding 10.

Keying the UNCG win was its work on the glass, boasting a +13 on the backboards in a matchup between the two top rebounding teams in the SoCon. The Spartans also shot the ball at a 55.1% (27-of-49) clip, while holding the Mocs to just 44.6% (25-56) shooting for the game.

Neither team shot the ball particularly well from beyond the three-point arc, with the Mocs connecting on just 8-of-22 (36.4%) from long-range, while UNCG went just 6-of-19 (31.6%) from long-range.

Kobe Langley finished with nine points, connecting on 3-of-8 from the field, and prior to his game-winning triple, had been 0-for-5 on the night from long-range up until that huge game-winning triple.

UNCG now holds the tiebreaker for third place in the Southern Conference standings by virtue of its season series split with the Mocs. Chattanooga swept Furman, Mercer and Wofford in the season series, which would give the Spartans the upper hand in any tiebreaker scenarios with Wofford, Mercer, or VMI.

UNCG will now head on the road for the final time this season, traveling to Samford on Feb. 19 to face Samford before closing out the regular-season slate with games against both Western Carolina (Feb. 23) and East Tennessee State (Feb. 27).

Samford 100, VMI 99 (OT)

Samford guard Ques Glover/photo courtesy of Samford Athletics

In what was a thriller in Southern Conference action Thursday night, Samford was able to come up with a 100-99 win over VMI, as point guard Ques Glover knocked down a jumper with 1.2 seconds remaining, as Samford went on to pick up a hugely important Southern Conference win Thursday night at the Pete Hanna Center.

The win saw the Bulldogs improve to 17-9 overall and 7-7 in league play, while the Keydets dropped to 15-12 overall and 8-7 in SoCon play. The win by the Bulldogs helps Samford forge a season split with the Keydets, avenging what was a 99-80 loss at VMI back on Jan. 20.

Coupled with a win over Chattanooga earlier this month, it allows Samford to gain an edge in the race for the No. 3 seed for the upcoming Southern Conference Tournament by virtue of an earlier win this month over league-leading Chattanooga.

Glover helped pace the Bulldogs in Thursday night’s win, as he finished with 26 points on 10-of-24 shooting from the field, while going 1-of-6 from three-point land. He completed a double-double performance by also dishing out 10 helpers in the win for the Bulldogs. He also added four rebounds and a pair of steals in the win.

Jermaine Marshall added 22 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the field and 12-of-15 from the line, adding six rebounds and a steal. Logan Dye finished with 17, while Cooper Kaifes rounded out the double-figure scorers for Samford with 14.

In the losing effort, VMI was able to get 70 of its 99 points from center Jake Stephens, who posted 39 points, 10 rebounds, dished out five assists, blocked three shots and recorded a steal, while sophomore guard Tre Bonham added 31 points, five rebounds, three assists and a block in the losing effort.

Stephens connected on 12-of-19 shots from the field, including an impressive 7-of-8 effort from three-point range and was 8-for-11 from the charity stripe. Bonham went 9-of-13 from the field, including 2-of-3 from long-range and was a near-perfect 11-of-12 from the charity stripe. Honor Huff rounded out the Keydets in double figures by adding 10 points for VMI.

The two teams shot the ball extremely well from beyond the arc, connecting on a combined 28-of-58 from three-point range, which computes to a blistering 48.2% from long-range for the evening.

Stephens’ 39 points represented a career-high, while Bonham’s 31 points was also a career-high.

The epic contest saw 14 ties and 14 lead changes, with the two teams heading to the extra session tied, 88-88. It was Samford’s second-straight overtime win on its home floor and second in its past three games. VMI fell to 0-3 in overtime games this season.

The Bulldogs finished the night shooting an impressive 51.6% (32-of-62) from the field, including an impressive 50% (12-of-24) clip from three-point land. Meanwhile, VMI finished the contest connecting on 48.4% (31-of-64) from the field and 47.1% (16-of-34) from three-point land in the contest.

Wednesday night’s recap:

Conley Garrison went over 2,000 points in his career in Furman’s win over Western Carolina Wednesday night

Furman, Wofford and Mercer were all able to pick up wins on Wednesday night to help complete the five-game slate, which covered Wednesday and Thursday night to close out the mid-week schedule.

Furman got 25 points from Mike Bothwell, while Alex Hunter added 23, and Conley Garrison posted 13 points and six rebounds, crossing the 2,000-point threshold for his career, and freshman guard J.P. Pegues added 15 off the bench, as the Paladins snapped a three-game losing streak with a 103-85 win over Western Carolina at the Liston B. Ramsey Activities Center.

The win saw the Paladins improve to 18-10 overall and 10-5 in Southern Conference action, as Furman strengthened its hold on second place in the league standings heading down the stretch. Furman now owns a two-game lead in the league standings for the No. 2 seed heading towards the tournament in Asheville early next month.

The loss saw the Catamounts drop their fifth-straight contest, as Western Carolina fell to 9-19 overall and 3-12 in league play.

Meanwhile, in Charleston Wofford was able to post the season sweep over The Citadel by getting a hard-fought 65-58 win at McAlister Field House Wednesday night, as the Terriers moved to 16-11 overall and 8-7 in league play. The Citadel fell to 11-14 overall and 5-9 in league action.

Max Klesmit led three Wofford players in double figures, finishing with 17 points, while B.J. Mack added 15 and Austin Patterson finished up with 11, in what was a well-rounded effort from the Terriers. It was also an impressive effort on the defensive end of the floor for Wofford, as the Terriers held the Bulldogs to just 34.1% shooting for the game.

In picking up the road win Wednesday night, it also marked Wofford head coach Jay McAuley’s 50th win in just his third season at the helm in Spartanburg.

Tyler Moffe led the Bulldogs in the losing effort, posting a game-high 20 points and dished out four assists, while preseason SoCon Player of the Year Hayden Brown added 13 points and 11 boards to mark his eighth double-double of the season, which included his fifth in SoCon play. Jason Roche rounded out the double-figure scorers for the Bulldogs, with 11 points.

ETSU’s Ledarrius Brewer guards Mercer’s Jalen Johnson (photo courtesy of Mercer athletics)

Finally, maybe the biggest game of the night saw East Tennessee State in Macon for a battle with the Mercer Bears. Mercer picked up a 65-56 win over the Bucs, handing ETSU its seventh loss in its past eight games, as the Bears garnered the season split with the Bucs.

The win saw the Bears improve to 15-13 overall and 8-7 in league play, while ETSU dropped to 13-15 overall and 5-10 in league action.

The Bears’ stingy defense in the second half was strong, holding the Bucs to just 14 points allowing Mercer to overcome what was nine-point halftime deficit to garner the all-important win, as the Bears continue to chase one of the top six spots for a bye in the opening round of the Southern Conference Tournament.

The Bears went to the locker room trailing 42-33, however, were able to out-score the Bucs 32-14 in the second half to come up with the win. ETSU was held without points over a 9:24 stretch in the second half, allowing the Bears to take their first lead of the night when Felipe Haase knocked down a triple with 11:25 remaining, giving Mercer the 46-44 lead.

LeDarrius Brewer was able to give the Bucs a brief spark, scoring four-straight points to give ETSU a brief 48-46 lead with 9:30 remaining, however, Jovan Tucker’s triple on the ensuing possession helped the Bears regain the lead for good.

Mercer finished the contest with three in double figures, as Felipe Haase led the way with 17 points, while Jalen Johnson added 16, and Shannon Grant finished with 13 points and six boards to round out the double-figure scorers.

ETSU finished with 36 of its 56 points coming from guards Ledarrius Brewer and Jordan King. Brewer led all scorers with 19 points, while King chipped in with 17. The Bucs connected on just 22.7% (5-of-22) from three-point range in the contest, and following a solid 5-of-12 performance in the opening half of play, the Bucs faltered in the second, going 0-for-10 from downtown.

Briefly previewing the weekend’s slate

Furman and Wofford meet at the Well for the first time since the 2019-20 season

Maybe the top game in league play will take place in downtown Greenville at high noon Saturday, with Furman hosting Wofford at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, as it will be the Paladins’ final home game of the 2021-22 regular-season.

The Paladins haven’t swept Wofford on the hardwood in a regular-season since the 2005-06 campaign, when the Paladins were able to post an 83-52 win in Spartanburg, which was followed up by a 67-59 victory in Greenville.

Furman was able to hand Wofford its largest margin of defeat in five seasons of operation at the Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium earlier this season, posting a 75-50 win in Spartanburg. It not only marked Furman’s first win in Spartanburg since January of 2011, but was also the Paladins’ first win at Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium. Wofford swept Furman last season, with a 75-67 win in Greenville and a 74-73 victory in Spartanburg to close out the regular-season.

The Paladins are 3-2 in their downtown home since returning with three games at the facility during the 2019-20 season. Both of Furman’s losses in the facility have come against UNCG, including a 58-56 setback to the Spartans a couple of weeks ago. The Paladins also have an 81-66 SoCon win over Mercer early in league play.

The last time the two met at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, it was Mike Bothwell who rescued the Paladins, as his layup with 12 seconds remaining helped the Paladins hold off a good Wofford team, posting a 67-66 at the downtown Greenville venue before over 6,000 in attendance. Tip-off between the Paladins and Terriers is slated for high noon on Saturday afternoon.

UNC Greensboro will be in Birmingham for a battle against Samford in a game that could go a long way in creating some separation in the SoCon standings. The Spartans were able to hold off Samford in the first meeting between the two this season, which took place on Jan. 22 at the Greensboro Coliseum.

The Spartans survived what was a furious rally from the Bulldogs down the stretch, getting some crucial plays from Keyshaun Langley, adding a big driving layup late in the contest to end a long scoring drought for UNCG, and it was part of a 15-point effort in helping the Spartans to one of their eight SoCon wins.

It will mark the 29th all-time meeting between the Spartans and Bulldogs, with UNCG holding a commanding 20-8 lead in the series, including having won 11-straight in the series. The Spartans and Bulldogs will tip things up at 2 p.m. EST at the Pete Hanna Center Saturday, where the Bulldogs are 10-2 this season.

In a battle between two more teams that battling for positioning for the upcoming Southern Conference Tournament, The Citadel will host East Tennessee State in another key league matchup. Both the Bulldogs and Bucs are tied in the league wins column, having both won five games apiece in league play. The Citadel came to Johnson City and was able to secure 75-73 win in Johnson City earlier this season.

If you were wondering the last time the Bulldogs were able to secure a regular-season sweep of the Bucs, The Citadel legend Les Robinson was in his second season as the head coach in Johnson City rebuilding the ETSU basketball program following the mess left by Barry Dowd. That was the 1986-87 season, as The Citadel picked up a 90-80 win in Charleston, as well as an 86-72 win in Johnson City.

The winner of the 1 p.m. contest would mean an outside shot at the No. 6 overall seed, but its likely a battle for the seven seed at this point the way the overall standings are shaping up.

Western Carolina will be looking to snap a six-game skid when it welcomes a Mercer team to Cullowhee for a 2 p.m. contest. The Bears trail the all-time series between the two, 12-11, however, were able to get a hard-fought 72-64 win over the Catamounts earlier this season. Western Carolina is 6-3 all-time against the Bears at the Ramsey Center.

Chattanooga closes out the matchups Saturday, as the Mocs look to get back on the winning streak with a 4 p.m. contest against VMI at the Roundhouse. A win would help the Mocs secure at least a share of the preseason SoCon regular-season title. UTC was able to get a 78-74 win over VMI earlier this season at Cameron Hall in Lexington.

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