Separation of Three:
UNCG, Samford and Furman all maintained their tight grip on the league’s top spot, as it has clearly become a three-team race for the 2022-23 Southern Conference regular-season crown and top overall seed for next month’s SoCon Tournament in Asheville.
As most probably have already figured out, the No. 1 overall seed in Asheville is perhaps more paramount than ever, with the top overall seed for the tournament able to avoid having to play the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds, and likely would only have to face one of those teams in Monday night’s SoCon title game. Obviously, the No. 2 and No. 3 finishers will face each other before emerging to the championship game on Monday, Mar. 6.
Furman, which holds the tiebreaker at this point with its win over Samford back on Jan. 25, ran its winning streak to six games over the weekend, taking down Wofford, 80-67, before a home school-record crowd of 6,199 on hand at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. Furman had four place in double, leading the game wire-to-wire before winning their second-straight game by double digits over the Terriers this season.
Jalen Slawson continued his strong play of late into the month of February. The SoCon’s January Player of the Month again filled the stats sheet, finishing with 16 points, nine rebounds, four steals, one assist and one block.
Bothwell had more of a tame performance by his standards offensively, but while Wofford made it almost violent at times to try and stop him driving to the basket, the Terriers found out the Bothwell contributes in other areas and that, stopping or limiting Bothwell offensively doesn’t stop Furman.
The senior from Cleveland Heights, OH., who is another contender for SoCon Player of the Year accolades, finished with 10 points, five rebounds, two assists, and two steals. His contributions on the defensive end, which included making paint access on dribble penetration for the Wofford guards difficult to access for much of the afternoon, as well as on the offensive glass were two major reasons as to why Furman’s recent trend of success was able to remain alive and well on Saturday. Bothwell pulled down four of the team’s 12 offensive rebounds in the game.
When Bothwell or Slawson are slowed offensively, Furman is now showing its full array of offensive talent because it’s a group that has gained confidence to step up and score with regularity if called upon to do so. That confidence, like Furman’s ultimate changing of the narrative against Wofford in the overall series, hasn’t come easy, but it has come through a gradual process.
On Saturday, Alex Williams was waiting for his opportunity to show his game to the record crowd with gritty anticipation. He posted 15 points and three rebounds, helping lead a Paladin bench effort that saw it nip the Terriers, 24-22, in that particular category. Not to be overlooked were contributions of Carter Whitt (3 assists) and Ben VanderWal (8 pts), which were also key in Furman picking up its 19th win of the season.
JP Pegues continued his strong play at the point guard spot, with 13 points and seven assists, as he keyed the fast start to the game, as he dished out three of his seven assists before the first media timeout, helping Furman score the first eight points of the contest. For Pegues, it marked the seventh-straight game in which he has scored in double figures.
Both UNCG and Samford were able to post double-digit wins in their games as well, with the Spartans going on the road and delivering a 79-59 beatdown to The Citadel at McAlister Field House. Meanwhile, Samford also led wire-to-wire in game that featured 40 fouls in getting a 73-62 win over East Tennessee State at the Pete Hanna Center. It was the Bulldogs’ 13th-straight win over SoCon opposition inside the friendly confines of the Pete Hanna Center.
A.J. Staton McCray’s 16-point effort helped power the Bulldogs to the win in what was an otherwise tame performance by Samford’s main scoring trio of Logan Dye (8 pts), Ques Glover (5 pts) and Jermaine Marshall (10 pts). It was a tough day shooting the basketball for Bucky McMillan’s club, connecting on just 38.2% (21-of-55) shooting from the field, which included just a 25.0% (5-of-20) effort from three-point land. Helping off-set that tough shooting performance by Samford was a 26-of-33 effort from the free throw stripe. The Bulldogs outscored the Bucs by 16 at the foul stripe (26-10), attempting 17 more free throws (33-16).
UNCG’s 79-59 demolition of The Citadel was the Spartans’ 11th double-digit win of the season and was also the second-straight on the road by 20 or more points. Keyshaun Langley led UNCG with 19 points, while Keondre Kennedy posted 18, as the Spartans scored their second-most points in regulation in a game this season, and its second-most overall in a league game, bested only by UNCG’s 88 points in an overtime win at Furman in January.
The Spartans used the same defensive narrative to garner the road win. The Spartans finished the game with a 22-9 advantage in the points from turnovers category, as UNCG forced 16 Bulldog miscues in the road win.
The Number 6 is significant
The number six is an important for the league’s top three teams. Samford is 6-0 at home in league play, while UNCG moved to 6-0 in league road games with its 20-point win in the Lowcountry, and Furman’s 13-point win over Wofford was it’s sixth-straight win. With a win Wednesday night at VMI, Furman will have won its sixth-straight win on the road in league play, and that would mark Furman’s longest league road winning streak since 1973-74.
Cat’s too much for struggling Mocs
While it has become clear that the top three seeds will go to Furman, Samford and UNCG in some order, the intrigue grows and the plot thickens around the five or six teams fighting for the No. 4-6, or basically to avoid having to play on the tournament’s opening Friday.
Western Carolina took a major step in the right direction with its 83-68 win over Chattanooga Saturday afternoon at the Ramsey Center. The Catamounts have now won more total games and more league games than Western Carolina did in Justin Gray’s first season at the helm, as the Catamounts improved to 13-12 overall and 6-6 in league play, and the Catamounts currently sit alone in fourth place in the league’s standings.
In Western Carolina’s win this past Saturday, they were able to avenge what was a 95-76 loss to the Mocs in Chattanooga back in January. That was when the Mocs had Stephens, and now it looks as if Dan Earl’s club is going to have to fight to hold on to a top six spot for the upcoming Southern Conference Tournament. More on the Mocs later in the week in what is a bit of SoCon history lesson, which I will be taking a look back at some of the rare occasions that the Mocs have struggled on the hardwood.
The Mocs are reeling, having lost six of their past seven games, including four their last five without their all-everything seven-foot comparison.
Not the same type of comparison, however, it isn’t as if Earl hasn’t been without the services of Stephens before. When Stephens went down last year, he would end up missing most of the road game at Chattanooga, which Dan Earl’s Keydets would go on to win even though they were without Stephens for a majority of the game, taking down the eventual champions 80-73.
Stephens, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the game against the Mocs, would end up missing the final two games of the regular season against Western Carolina and Wofford, which the Keydets lost both of before a less than 100% Stephens returned in time for the tournament in Asheville. We shall see what the end result will be this time, and whether or not Stephens can return.
The fact is, unlike VMI last year, which had guys like Kamdyn Curfman, who is now at Marshall, and Trey Bonham, who is now at Florida and even freshman Honor Huff, who has to sit out this season for the Mocs after transferring to another conference school per Southern Conference rule, the Keydets still seemingly had more consistent and reliable scoring options. Even with Huff this season had the SoCon granted his appeal, it would have still been tough.
One perusal of the stats sheet from the last game will show that two other Mocs starters–Jamal Johnson and Demetrius Davis–were scoreless on the road in Cullowhee. The good news is that other guys stepped up with, KC Hankton turning in one of his best games as a Moc, posting a team-leading 17 points, while Jamal Walker added 16. Chattanooga absolutely can’t have players have off nights from here on out, especially guys that are supposed to be the top offensive options like Johnson and Davis.
While the Mocs struggle to find themselves, slowly but surely the Catamounts seem to be doing just that, with victories in two of their last three games. The Catamounts look like they are the fourth best team in the Southern Conference right now, and there’s no better evidence of that than the Catamounts’ 79-67 win over current league tri-leader Furman early in conference play.
In Saturday’s win, the Catamounts were once again had a balanced scoring effort, with five finishing in double figures for the Catamounts, led by Tre Jackson’s 18 points, while Russell Jones Jr. added 15 points and both Vonrerius Woolbright and Tyzhaun Claude concluded the contest with a pair of double-doubles, with Woolbright posting 12 points and 10 rebounds, while Claude added 10 points and 12 boards.
Rounding out the Catamount players in double figures in the win over the Mocs who finished in double figures was DJ Campbell, as he finished with 11 points in 26 minutes of floor time. All five WCU starters finished in double figures.
In case you might have been wondering, the Catamounts also hit on that magic number of at least 10 from three-point range, too, as Western Carolina connected on 11 from long-range, finishing 11-of-26 from downtown for a superb 42.3% shooting clip from long range.
Not to be overlooked was WCU’s performance from the charity stripe, hitting on 20-of-24 charity shot efforts. Without Stephens in their snagging rebounds for UTC, the Catamounts were able to blitz the boards, owning a 43-33 edge on the glass in the win. In the first matchup between the two back on jan. 11, the Mocs owned a 27-18 edge on the glass.
Finally, Western Carolina did a masterful job on all areas defensively in this past Saturday dominating performance in a win over the Mocs. After seeing the Mocs blister the nets at 60.8% from the field, which included a 42.9% effort from three-point range in the matchup back in January, the Catamounts held UTC to just 34.4% from the field, including a 33.3% shooting clip in the most recent win.
The win marked Western Carolina’s second-straight win over the Mocs at the Liston B. Ramsey Center, having posted a 70-59 triumph over the Mocs on Jan. 12, 2022. The win now means that the Catamounts have eclipsed both the total wins f (11) and conference wins (5) established a during the 2021-22 season, as the 2022-23 edition improved to 13-12 overall and 6-6 in SoCon play.
VMI’s garners first win
VMI was able to capture its first conference win of the 2022-23 basketball season, and also the first Southern Conference win of the Andrew Wilson era, as the Keydets went on the road to The Citadel came away with a 75-69 win. It means the Keydets will avoid going through the entire SoCon slate without having won a game. The win over the Bulldogs also snapped what had become a 12-game losing streak.
The game was close throughout between the Keydets and Bulldogs, as it featured nine ties and 12 lead changes over the course of 40 minutes of basketball.
It would be an unlikely hero, which gave the Keydets their first lead of the second half, knocking down a triple, making it a 57-54 game with 11:24 remaining in the game. Moments later, it would be Wolfe who would give VMI the lead again, at 59-57, following an offensive rebound and layup.
Late in the contest, Tony Felder Jr. knocked down a pair of triples to help the visitors from Lexington to maintain the lead in the final three minutes, and the Keydets were able to hold off the Bulldogs late to come up with the six-point win.
The next time out, the Keydets were in Macon, and played only seven players due to injury, and suffered as a result, with the deeper and more mature Bears coming up with the 80-54 win at Hawkins Arena. Rickey Bradley Jr. sat out the entire game with an injury, while VMI’s veteran-most player Sean Conway missed the entire second half with an injury.
On a night in which the Keydets struggled to score points, VMI was led by Tony Felder Jr.’s 17 points, while Asher Woods finished the game with 15.
The road gets no easier this week, as the Keydets will have a Wednesday night test against league-leading Furman Wednesday night before returning to the court Friday night traveling to Johnson City to face East Tennessee State.
Tuesday Night League Clash:
East Tennessee State will be on the road Tuesday night, facing UNC Greensboro in what will be the first of two meetings between the two this season.
The game is a renewal of a rivalry that has grown in intensity over the past few seasons and given the success of both in terms of championships won, that was seemingly a natural progression. While ETSU is struggling to keep its head above the proverbial water in this year’s Southern Conference race, UNCG is once again in the mix for a regular-season SoCon title and is looking to keep itself in good stead for the No. 1 overall seed for the Southern Conference Tournament when the 10 team descend upon Asheville for the league Tournament in less than a month. The Bucs will be looking to remain in the top six of the league pecking order, as we count down the days towards Asheville.
Since the start of the 2015-16 season, both ETSU and UNCG have been two of the top three teams in Southern Conference basketball, with the Spartans having won 172 total games, while the Bucs are not all that far behind having won 167. UNCG has won 98 SoCon games, while ETSU has posted 91.
The Bucs have won their last three games in the Greensboro Coliseum, claiming a 73-69 decision in the Coliseum in the 2022 regular-season finale.
The game is set for a 7 p.m. tip-off Tuesday night on ESPNU.