SoCon Notebook for Feb. 15

SoCon Basketball Notebook: Feb. 15, 2023

Is Wednesday night’s game at Wofford a “make or break” game for Greg Gary as the head coach of Mercer

Furman, Samford and UNC Greensboro remain tied atop the SoCon

Below is a look at how the SoCon action ended up this past weekend, as well as a look ahead to the action Wednesday night. The final stretch of the season.

One thing I can guarantee by the end of Wednesday night is that there will not be a three-way tie for first place in the league standings.

Feb. 11-12 Recaps:

Samford 76, The Citadel 70

Samford got a bit tougher of a challenge than maybe it would have expected, however, held on to get what was a 76-70 win over The Citadel in a key Southern Conference contest Saturday afternoon at the Pete Hanna Center. With the win, Samford finished off the season sweep of Samford and improved to 18-9 overall and 12-2 in league play, while The Citadel dropped what was its sixth-straight contest, falling to 9-18 overall and 4-10 in league action.

Jermaine Marshall would end up leading the way for Samford, as he posted a game-high 23 points and seven rebounds, as the junior graduate transfer from Akron finished the contest by going 7-for-10 from the field, which included a 2-for-3 performance from three-point range. Logan Dye and Ques Glover also added double-figure scoring performances, with both finishing with 16 points in the win. Dye did a majority of his damage from the charity stripe, as he went 10-for-13 from the charity stripe in the win. Glover connected on 6-of-9 from the field.

Despite a long losing streak coming into the “Battle of the Bulldogs” matchup, it was The Citadel that had the better of the play through the opening five minutes of the contest, taking a 10-9 lead on a Brady Spence layup with 15:16 remaining in the opening half. From that point, Samford rebounded to go on a 13-4 run to take what was a 22-14 lead following a Glover layup with just over nine minutes remaining in the opening half of play. The Citadel wouldn’t go away, however, and would remain in the game for the long haul. The Citadel scored 10 of the game’s next 14 points to get back to within 26-24 with 3:14 remaining in the opening half, following a Madison Durr jumper in the paint. Samford would close the half strong, however, and would head to the locker room with a 33-27 lead.

In the second half, Samford created a little distance on the scoreboard coming out with a little bit of a spurt to start the second half, as a layup by Jaden Campbell at the 15:17 mark of the second frame would give Samford a seemingly comfortable nine-point advantage, at 42-33.

However, the The Citadel would come roaring back over the next five minutes, trimming the Samford lead to just one possession when Elijah Morgan knocked down a triple. The response from Samford was almost immediate, starting with a three from Glover on the very next offensive possession for the hometown Bulldogs. It would eventually result in a 17-5 run for Samford, as the hometown Bulldogs increased their lead to 63-48 with four minutes remaining following a pair of Dye free throws.

However, The Citadel would manage to put a scare into Samford in the late going, using a 16-9 run to get within eight, at 72-64, with 26 seconds remaining. The Citadel then scored six unanswered points on a layup by Morgan and four free throws from AJ Smith and Austin Ash, getting the visiting Bulldogs to within 72-70 with seven seconds remaining. But Dye would help Samford close out the win, connecting on the final four charity shots to help Samford to the six-point home win.

The Citadel connected on 52% (26-of-50) from the field in the win and had a pair of players finish with double-figure scoring performances, led by Austin Ash’s 21 points, while Stephen Clark rounded out the double-figure scorers for the Bulldogs with 13.

Samford returns to action Wednesday night with a huge contest against UNC Greensboro in the friendly confines of the Pete Hanna Center. Tip-off for that contest is set for 7:30 EST. The Citadel will also be in action Wednesday night, as the Bulldogs look to snap their six-game skid, hosting Furman in a 7 p.m. contest at McAlister Field House.

Chattanooga 73, Mercer 56

Chattanooga got big nights from a pair of freshmen performers, as the Mocs posted a season-sweep of league rival Mercer, downing the Bears, 73-56, Saturday afternoon inside the friendly confines of McKenzie Arena.

With its second-straight win, the Mocs improved their overall record to 14-13 overall and 6-8 inside league play, while Mercer fell to 12-15 overall and 5-9 in the SoCon. Sam Alexis scored a career-high 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting from the field, which included a 4-for-6 effort from three-point range in win. Alexis also added six rebounds to his overall stat line.

The other freshman player to get into the double figures scoring act for Chattanooga was Brody Robinson, who finished with 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field, which included a 2-for-3 effort from three-point range. Jamal Johnnson chipped in with 17 points and completed the double-double with 11 rebounds.

In a game of strange twists and scoring droughts, the Mocs found themselves struggling to find their shooting touch in the early going of the contest, falling behind 9-1 after missing their first four shots of the game. Following the first media timeout of the contest, the Mocs would find their shooting touch, with Brody Robinson providing a layup and a three, while Sam Alexis found his range from deep, pulling UTC to within six, at 16-10, with 10:32 left in the opening frame.

From there, the freshmen duo helped keep the Mocs proverbial heads above water, as they scored 17 of the game’s next 23 points to eventually cut the UTC deficit to just two, at 25-23, with just over six minutes remaining in the half. Jamal Johnson’s three-pointer at the buzzer gave the Mocs the momentum going into the locker room, as the Bears lead 38-33 at the half.

Mercer would stretch their lead back out to nine by connecting on four of their first six shots to open the second half, which allowed Mercer to take a 46-37 lead at the 17:46 mark of the second half. The Mocs response would be almost immediate, as Dalvin White would knock down a second-chance triple to help put some momentum in the Mocs corner. Following a defensive stop and a KC Hankton bucket on the other end for the Mocs, Chattanooga was within four, forcing a Mercer timeout, with the score 46-42 in favor of the Bears with 16:15 left.

The 12-0 run for the Mocs, which gave them a 49-46 lead, was capped off by a Jamal Johnson triple with 14:55 remaining. It was just Chattanooga’s second lead of the afternoon. From that point, the Mocs would end up taking their largest lead of the afternoon, at 54-48, when Sam Alexis connected on a layup in the paint with 12:58 remaining in the game. However, the Bears’ response would be swift, as James Glisson III answered with a three-pointer 60 seconds later, cutting the Mocs’ lead in half, at 54-51.  The Bears eventually knotted the score on a free throw by Luis Hurtado and a jumper by Glisson, making it a 54-54 game with 10:43 remaining.

From that point, the Mocs would close out the basketball game in strong fashion, closing the game on a 19-2 run, which included holding the Bears scoreless for the final 7:54 of the contest to come up with the win. The Mocs ended up out-scoring the Bears 40-18 in the second half after the Bears held the five-point, 38-33, halftime lead.

UNCG 97, Wofford 89 (OT)

UNCG was able to pick up its fourth-straight win and posted its second-straight game with 90 or more points, as the Spartans took down Wofford, 97-89, in Southern Conference action Sunday afternoon at the Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium.

The win meant the Spartans were able to keep pace with league-leading Furman and Samford, matching the other two teams tied atop the league standings with a 12-2 league mark. Overall, UNCG saw its record improve to 18-9 this season. Wofford dropped to 13-14 overall and 5-9 in league play.

The Terriers and Spartans went back-and-forth in what was another thrilling contest in league play. After Wofford jumped to an early 5-0 lead, UNCG responded with 11-straight, as Keyshaun Langley posted eight of the 11 points during the spurt to stake the Spartans to the six-point lead. UNCG closed the half with an 11-8 run, snatching an 36-33 lead as the two teams headed for the halftime locker room.

With the game tied 40-40, Wofford assumed an eight-point, 63-55, advantage with just over eight minutes remaining in the game, following a triple by BJ Mack. It was Wofford’s largest lead of the afternoon. However, UNCG scored the game’s next 12 points to assume a 67-63 lead, with Wofford getting as close as one on three different occasions, but not able to overtake the Spartans.

With UNCG leading 79-73, following a pair of Treacy foul shots and 36 seconds left, Wofford scored the next five points on Jackson Paveletzke jumper and another Mack three-pointer, cutting UNCG’s lead to, 79-78, with 24 seconds left. On the other end, Mikeal Brown-Jones dunked it home to put UNCG back up three, 81-78, with just 13 seconds remaining, however, Wofford would tie the game on a Corey Tripp three-pointer to tie the game, 81-81.

In the extra session, it was all Spartans, who picked their second league win in overtime against a school from the Palmetto State, as UNCG would outscore the Terriers, 16-8, in the extra frame to pick up its fourth-straight win.

UNCG was led by 27 points from point guard and leading scorer Keyshaun Langley. Keyshaun Langley scored 18 of his points on six triples. Wofford was paced in scoring in the contest by Mack’s game-high 28 points, while Paveletzke added 20 to the cause.

A Closer Look at Chattanooga and East Tennessee State

If you know anything about Southern Conference basketball, then you know how vitally important both Chattanooga and East Tennessee State are to the overall power structure of the Southern Conference, however, the two find themselves battling to stay out of the play-in game of the Southern Conference Tournament when the tournament tips off on March 3 in Asheville.

Both ETSU and Chattanooga are under relatively new head coaches, with Desmond Oliver now in his second season at the helm of the Bucs’ program, while former VMI head coach Dan Earl is in his first season at the helm of Chattanooga’s program. Some of what the defending champion Mocs have been going through of late has a lot to do with an injury that has at least temporarily, caused some of those around the program to re-evaluate expectations—at least for this season.

Mocs on the rebound after injury to Stephens

It was all going so well for the Mocs until it wasn’t. Jake Stephens, a graduate transfer from VMI, was a shoe-in for Southern Conference Player of the Year honors and it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Mocs would be in the mix for the Southern Conference regular-season and tournament titles once again. However, on Jan. 18 in a game against preseason Southern Conference favorite Furman and in a rematch of last year’s epic Southern Conference title game, Stephens suffered an undisclosed hand injury and hasn’t returned since.

That night, the Mocs would fall to 11-9 overall and 3-4 in league play. The next team on the schedule was struggling bitter rival East Tennessee State, however, the Bucs came to McKenzie Arena where they made easy work of the defending champions, handing the Mocs their worst homecourt loss of the 2022-23 season, posting a 78-62 win in Johnson City. The Mocs would drop another the following Wednesday, as Wofford came to the Roundhouse and handed the Mocs a fourth-straight loss, dating back to a 75-74 loss to Samford on the road—a game which had seen Dan Earl’s club hold a 19-point second half lead before seeing Samford come all the way back to nip the Mocs.

The Mocs would eventually snap the streak at East Tennessee State, with a 73-64 win, however, two more losses were to follow on the road, with the Mocs dropping contests to Western Carolina (L, 83-68) and at Furman (L, 79-58). It finally seems as if the Mocs have found their way in each of the past couple of games. This past Wednesday night, the Mocs won going away over The Citadel, posting an 82-63 win over the Bulldogs to avenge an early SoCon loss in Charleston. And after going scoreless in a loss at Western Carolina, Jamal Johnson rebounded to score a career-high 24 points.

On Saturday, the Mocs would record their second win in succession, posting a 73-56 win over Mercer, garnering the season-sweep. The Mocs got a breakout performance from big Sam Alexis, who scored a career-high 26 points, while Johnson added a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds. It marked the first time in a month that the Mocs had put back-to-back wins together, and currently, UTC sits in good position to try and perhaps make a run at the No. 4 spot with Western Carolina’s loss at Furman. The 17-point win over Mercer saw the Mocs improve to 14-13 overall and 6-8 in Southern Conference play.

Alexis’ performance certainly raised more than a few eyebrows, and that kind of inside-outside production could make the Mocs dangerous again when the 10 teams arrive in Asheville for the Southern Conference Tournament. The Mocs’ final four Southern Conference games will see them travel to VMI on Feb. 15, while facing UNC Greensboro (Feb. 18) and Samford (Feb. 22) back-to-back at McKenzie Arena and then will close out league play on the road on Feb. 25 in Spartanburg at Wofford. It’s not the easiest of closing stretches to the season, however, the good news is that the two teams tied for first Samford and UNCG—both have to come to the Roundhouse.

Before there was Stephens there was Oliver Morton…

A Look back to another Mocs great big man takes us to the early part of the millennium and to a guy named Oliver Morton—a player that could flat out score the basketball for UTC. Morton was a highly skilled player in the paint for the Mocs, and like Stephens, at the time when Morton plied his trade in the Southern Conference, he was one of the biggest and toughest players to guard for the opposition. Morton would put his name in the Chattanooga and SoCon record books when he scored 50 points in a game on Jan. 24, 2001, against a solid non-Division I foe, in the Pikeville Bears.

The Mocs would hold off their pesky visitors from Kentucky and would do so thanks in large part to Morton, who posted a school-record 50 points on 20-of-28 shooting from the field in the contest. The 50 points by Morton would break the previous record of 42 points established by John Oliver some six years earlier in a game at Georgia Southern. Morton would finish his three-year career garnering All-SoCon honors and is one of the best players in Mocs basketball history to fail to win a Southern Conference Tournament title.

ETSU’s struggles

While its been a less than enjoyable season for most of the ETSU fanbase to stomach, the Bucs look at the moment as if they might be able to avoid having to play in the SoCon play-in game for a second-straight season. The Bucs’ 69-65 win over VMI Friday night has ETSU has the Bucs locked in a tie with Chattanooga currently, with the Mocs holding the tiebreaker at the moment as a result of their win over Western Carolina. The Bucs, which dropped a 71-60 home contest to Western Carolina earlier this season, have maybe their most important week of basketball of the 2022-23 season ahead, and one in which that could go a long way in determining just exactly when the Bucs might be taking the floor in Asheville.

To say Wednesday night’s battle in Cullowhee is a big game would be a major understatement. The Bucs have lost consecutive games to the Catamounts after having their 14-game winning streak against WCU ended last season in Cullowhee. In fact, if the Bucs aren’t able to come up with the road win over the Catamounts Wednesday night, it would mark the first time the Catamounts have swept the Bucs with two wins over ETSU in the same season since 1984-85. It would also mark a third-straight win in the series for Western Carolina, which would mark the Bucs’ longest losing streak against Western Carolina since a five-game losing skid to the Purple and Gold from March of 1994 until January of 1998.

After ETSU won 130 games in five seasons under Steve Forbes, the program has struggled to find its way back to the top of the SoCon since Forbes’ departure. Over the past three seasons, the Bucs have posted a 38-46 over the past three seasons and have already equaled the loss total of 17 games a year ago. The past two seasons have seen ETSU post just a 25-34 overall record, putting the Bucs in danger of posting its worst two-year stretch since early in the Murry Bartow era, as the Bucs won a total of just 25 games in Bartow’s first two campaigns as head coach.

And if the game against the Catamounts didn’t make life tough enough, add to that the fact that the Bucs have a trip to Timmons Arena this coming Saturday to face league-leading, and red-hot Furman, which heads into Wednesday night’s game at The Citadel as one of the hottest teams in college basketball, having won eight-straight games. The Bucs lost a 70-56 contest on their home floor back in early January to the Paladins and haven’t won at Timmons Arena since defeating Furman 62-61 inside the facility, thanks to a late runner by Desonta Bradford in the lane during the 2017-18 season. Like the game with Western Carolina, the Bucs will be looking to avoid something that hasn’t happened since the 1986-87 season.

The other bizarre thing about the 2022-23 season for ETSU has been its overall struggles on its home floor, as the Bucs have posted just a 5-9 record on the home hardwood this season. The Bucs are 101-35 all-time in Freedom Hall, dating to back the first season the Bucs started playing roundball in the facility in the 2013-14 campaign. The Bucs have won 88 games at Freedom Hall since the start of the 2015-16 campaign, however, are just 20-24 in the friendly confines after going 68-11 in six seasons at home under Forbes. There is a bit of good news, as ETSU has welcomed back DeAnthony Tipler returned to the ETSU lineup following a brief time spent away from the team over the latter half of the month of January.

Something’s got to give between Wofford and Mercer

When Wofford and Mercer face each other Wednesday night, it won’t only be the biggest game on the schedule because it’s the next game on the schedule, but it will literally be the biggest game of the season and could go a long way in determining team morale for both heading towards Asheville.

Just like both East Tennessee State and Chattanooga, both Mercer and Wofford have proud basketball traditions. The Terriers haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since that magical 2018-19 season, which saw the Terriers complete SoCon play unbeaten and would go on to win 30 games before it was all said and done. Since that time, the Terriers have flirted with 20 wins, reaching 19 twice, including last season, while winning 15 games in the COVID-19 shortened 2020-21 campaign.

To say this season has been a trying one for the Terriers would be an understatement, as head coach Jay McAuley stepped down on Dec. 30 as the head coach after almost a three-week leave of absence. The job would be left to Dwight Perry, who has presided over his share of “ups” and “downs” so far this season as the head coach. The “ups” include wins over SEC member and likely NCAA Tournament qualifier Texas A&M (W, 67-62) just before Christmas, while the best league win for the Terriers just happened to be its last one—an 85-77 win over then league-leading Samford in the friendly confines of Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium.

However, after going 5-3 to open 2023 in January, the Terriers have yet to scratch any success this month, dropping four-straight games to open the last month of the regular-season, which includes losing back-to-back overtime games. Wofford currently sits 13-14 overall following Sunday’s loss 97-89 OT setback at UNCG. The loss also dropped interim head coach Dwight Perry’s Terriers to 5-9 in Southern Conference play. It’s the longest in-conference losing streak for the Terriers since Wofford lost its last seven games of the regular-season in 2019-20 to end up in the No. 7 spot for the SoCon Tournament. Despite having to open that 2020 tournament on Friday night against The Citadel, Wofford would knock off No. 2 Furman (W, 77-68) and No. 6 Chattanooga (W, 72-70) to reach the championship game, eventually running out of gas against champion and 30-win East Tennessee State.

That was McAuley’s first season at the helm of the Wofford basketball program and the first without Mike Young, who had moved on to become the new head coach of the Virginia Tech Hokies. Despite the seven-straight losses, the run to the title game and given how it was done, which included a monumental win over the Terriers’ arch-rival in the process, the season was seen more as a positive than a negative. Wofford would follow with a second-place finish in the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, finishing 15-9 overall and 12-5 in league play. In the opening round of the Southern Conference, however, it was the Terriers, who as the No. 7 seed in McAuley’s first year, would be on the other end of

No. 7—this time the Mercer Bears—an it would be the boys from Macon that would send the Terriers home far earlier than they expected at least, as Leon Ayers III hit a late layup in the paint, as the Bears held on for the 62-61 win. Like Wofford had done the year before as the No. 7 seed, the Bears went all the way to Monday night before eventually running out of gas against No. 1 seed UNCG in the championship, losing by seven, 69-62.

Then came the 2021-22 campaign, and while the Terriers didn’t see a stark drop-off, given the amount of talent McAuley had at his disposal, even without point guard Storm Murphy, who transferred to Virginia Tech, big things were expected from the Terriers. Wofford arrived in Asheville as the No. 4 seed and sported an 18-12 record. Wofford opened with a thrilling 68-66 win over VMI, however, were simply outmanned in the semifinal against top seeded Chattanooga, who ended Wofford’s season decisively, handing the Terriers a 79-56 loss. And after initially agreeing to play in the’s Eracism College Basketball Classic, the Terriers withdrew from the field when a date and location couldn’t be pinned down for the game, and Wofford decided to end its season without playing in the postseason.

A couple of weeks later, the fallout began with players flocking to the portal. It was akin to a major warning sign and shockwave for the program. Max Klesmit, Ryan Larson, Sam Godwin, Luke Turner, Morgan Safford, Austin Patterson, Isaiah Bigelow and Keaton Turner all decided to move on from the program. Those significant losses left McAuley and staff reeling in the spring and summer to try and find adequate replacements. Enter Kyler Filewich (Southen Illinois), Jackson Sivills (Murray State), and Carson McCorkle (Virginia) via the transfer route, and they would join talented freshmen signees Amarri Tice, Jackson Paveletzke, Chase Martin and Adam Silas, as well as veteran all-conference performers BJ Mack and Messiah Jones.

So far, the Terriers, by their lofty standards and expectations, which even with a coaching change, the fans expect results because there is quality in this team. That being said, while talented, this team at times looks like it lacks some of the mental toughness and cohesion that some of the teams that have come along since the championship run by Wofford in the 2018-19 season. All told, Wofford has posted an overall 66-50 record since that 2018-19 team that capped off a remarkable 10-year span for Wofford basketball, which saw it post five SoCon Tournament titles in a 10-year span. In Southern Conference play, the Terriers are 35-32 and have finish with no more than 10 losses in league play in any of the past three seasons. A loss to Mercer would account for Wofford’s 10th loss in league action, which would equal the 2019-20 team. In case you were wondering, Wofford hasn’t posted more than 10 losses in league play since 2012-13.

This season, there has seemingly been a stark drop-off on the defensive end of the floor in comparison to what we have normally seen out of Terrier teams of the recent past. And while the Terriers have been pretty good offensively this season, the shooting acumen from long range has left plenty be desired.  In conference play, the Terriers rank last in scoring defense (77.4 PPG), seventh in field goal percentage defense (45.9%), and seventh in three-point field goal percentage defense (34.5%).

I think Wednesday night’s game with the Bears is huge for multiple reasons, but mainly because I think a loss will do more damage to the psyche of this basketball than anything else. The good news for Wofford is that the schedule isn’t horribly tough following Wednesday night’s test against Mercer, however, I think if Wofford loses, it’s going to be exceptionally tough to avoid Friday’s play-in round. Wofford will play both The Citadel (Feb. 18) and VMI (Feb. 22) on the road in its next two games before returning to Spartanburg for Senior Day against Chattanooga to close out the season (Feb. 25).

The Greg Gary era

When Mercer hired Greg Gary to become its head basketball coach, it was probably not lost on him or anyone that followed the Bears basketball program the very large shoes he would be asked to fill in his new role, which is replacing Bob Hoffman, who had revitalized the Mercer basketball program during an 11-year span, which included the pinnacle of that turnaround in 2014 and helping the Bears win the Atlantic Sun title in their final season as a league member, while helping Mercer punch its ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Add to that Hoffman led Mercer to its greatest achievement as an athletics program, which was a 78-71 win over Duke in the NCAA Tournament first round as the No. 14 seed in the tournament, capturing America’s collective hearts as March’s ultimate Cinderella.

However, since joining the Southern Conference as an official member in 2015, things haven’t never really gone that smoothly for the Bears basketball program, as they haven’t enjoyed the type of sustained and elite success they were able to enjoy for the better part of their final five seasons as a program in the Atlantic Sun.

It hasn’t been all on Gary, however, who has tried to make toughness, size and a physical overall basketball team the lynchpin of his team’s success in the Southern Conference. Mercer has become what essentially a Big Ten program might look like as a mid-major, as his biggest influence in his career has been Purdue head coach Matt Painter, who has his Purdue Boilermakers positioned as one of a handful of teams well-positioned for a run at the national title in 2022-23, powered by powerful seven-foot center Zach Edey.

Gary is now in his fourth season of trying to take the Bears basketball program back to the heights it enjoyed under Hoffman, and that’s been a little tougher than expected, due mostly to keeping his team’s healthy and his heavy reliance on the transfer portal has at times the Bears from being maybe as consistent of a winner as the fans in Macon might have wished. However, in Gary’s defense, he can’t control the health of his teams, and there’s no denying the fact that not having Neftali Alvarez on the floor for the better part of two seasons in meaningful games hindered the program from potentially taking that next step that many around the athletic department probably had hoped it had taken by now under Gary.

As mentioned above, the Bears did manage to reach the championship game of the Southern Conference Tournament as the No. 7 seed in 2020-21, and probably exceeded expectations in Gary’s first season on the job. Remember that 2019-20 team had some real character and was a great collective, with players like Djordje Dimitrijeivic Felipe Haase, and Ethan Stair, as the Bears surprised everyone to finish fourth overall in the league’s standings.

One of the single greatest wins under Gary came during his first season as the head coach in Macon, as the Bears were the only Southern Conference team to go into Freedom Hall and take down Steve Forbes’ 30-win ETSU team, handing the Bucs a 71-55 homecourt loss. Though the season was very much a success, as the Bears finished 17-15 overall and 11-7 in SoCon play, it was a disappointment nonetheless when Gary’s Bears made an early exit in Asheville, dropping a 70-56 opening decision to fifth-seeded Western Carolina.

The Bears finished an underwhelming seventh in the league final regular-season standings in Gary’s second season as the head coach, and were forced to play in the opening night of the tournament on Friday, however, with Neftali Alvarez having made a late-season return to the lineup, Mercer played some of its best basketball in March and made it all the way to Monday night’s championship game by knocking off Samford (W, 87-59), No. 2 seed Wofford (W, 62-61), and No. 6 VMI (W, 73-59), to reach the championship game against top seed UNC Greensboro. The Bears would eventually run out of gas in the title game against the Spartans, dropping a 69-61 contest.

Then came last season. The Bears again had to play on the opening night of the tournament as the No. 7 seed, defeating Western Carolina, 81-53, in the opening round and advanced to play No. 2 Furman in the quarterfinals of the tournament, and the Bears would see their season come to an end with an 80-66 loss to the Paladins.

This season, Mercer started the season without one of its key performers, as all-conference forward James Glisson III missed the better part of the first month-and-a-half with a hand injury, and then loss one of its key transfers—Jalan Cobb—a scorer and point guard transfer from Fordham—to an apparent knee injury. It had the Bears reeling, and the season-opening loss to East Carolina, which saw the Bears lead by as much as 16 points and were up nine at the break (39-30) only to see the Pirates come all the way back and get a 77-75 win.

The Bears got Glisson back near the end of non-conference play, and started to play better basketball, finishing the non-league slate with a 7-6 record, including solid wins over Ohio Valley member Morehead State (W, 79-52) and on the road at Sun Belt member Troy (W, 82-79). However, what followed would be five-straight losses to start league play, which marked Mercer’s worst start to SoCon play since joining the league in the 2014-15 season. The Bears have gone 5-4 in their last nine SoCon games, however, have dropped two-straight, with maybe the most heartbreaking loss of the season coming at home against one of the SoCon’s top three teams—Samford—as the Bulldogs prevailed 70-69 in overtime—as the game ended in somewhat controversial fashion, with Gary clearly calling a timeout, however, wasn’t granted one and the clock ran out with Mercer losing the game.

The Bears followed that disappointment with more of the same, surrendering a five-point halftime lead on the road at Chattanooga before getting out-scored 40-18 in the second half, as Mercer failed to score a point in the final eight minutes of the game, as UTC outscored the Bears 19-2 over that final stretch to garner a resounding 73-56 win.

The Bears’ problems this season have been clear for most to see, and those issues have come on the offensive end of the floor. In the conference only stats, the Bears rank last in scoring offense (61.9 PPG), last in team free throw percentage (64.4%), ninth in team field goal percentage (40.4%), and last in three-point field goal percentage (28.4%). The other glaring feature of this team is that when Jaylyn McCreary (15.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG) doesn’t play well, it seems that it often results in a Bears loss. McCreary is one of two Bears averaging in double figures this season, with point guard Kamar Robertson (11.2 PPG, 2.3 RPG) accounting for the other.

Like I said of Wofford, this game I think is a make-or-break game for Mercer. A loss here and it appears that Mercer is on its way to opening the tournament on a Friday in the Tournament for a third time in the four seasons under Gary. The Bears have a bit more difficult slate following the trip to Spartanburg Wednesday night to close out regular-season league play. Mercer will be in Macon vs. good Western Carolina team on Saturday before heading to one of the three league leaders the following Wed, as Mercer travels to Furman for a Feb. 22 contest, which will be Senior Night at Timmons Arena.

The good news is the Bears have a bit of a reprieve to close the season, hosting The Citadel on Senior Day at Hawkins Arena on Feb. 25. Given the way Mercer’s athletic administration has had a quick trigger finger with coaches in both football and basketball, Wednesday night’s post-Valentine Day trip to Spartanburg may also prove to be a pivotal game in then long-term for Gary himself, who has a record 63-58 overall and 32-35 in SoCon play in now his fourth season at the helm of the Bears program. This has the feeling of a “must win” for both Gary and the Bears.

The emerging SoCon rivalry between Samford and UNC Greensboro­­­

When UNC Greensboro and Samford tip off Wednesday night in a key Southern Conference tilt, it will represent an emerging rivalry on the Southern Conference hardwood rivalry, and a lot of that has to do with Samford making waves in the league over the past couple of seasons under head coach Bucky McMillan, who is now in his third season at the helm of the Samford basketball program.

He’s managed to do something few have over the past couple of seasons, which is win three-straight games against a program that has one the gold standard in league play over the past eight seasons—the UNCG Spartans. UNCG has won 101 Southern Conference games since the start of the of the 2015-16 season, which is most among all 10 Southern Conference programs. The Spartans have also been to the NCAA Tournament twice during that span.

In fact, just two years ago, to have made the claim that UNCG and Samford would be an emerging rivalry on the SoCon hardwood would have been laughable. Samford hasn’t made an NCAA Tournament appearance since going to the Big Dance in back-to-back seasons in 1999 and 2000, respectively, during their membership in the Trans-America Athletic Conference.

While UNCG has totaled 172 total victories and 101 Southern Conference wins over the past eight years, Samford has posted 116 wins and 129 losses over that same span, while in Southern Conference play, the Bulldogs have won almost exactly half of what the Spartans have over that same span, having posted just 52 league wins. Yet, when watching the two teams play over the past two seasons, you wouldn’t know the recent history of both programs could be so opposite.

When Bucky McMillan’s club takes the Pete Hanna Center floor Wednesday night to battle, the Bulldogs will be going for their fourth-straight win in the series against UNCG and a 15th-straight win over Southern Conference competition inside the friendly confines of the Pete Hanna Center. The past four meetings have been decided by a combined 13 points, included each of the past two by a combined four points, with the Bulldogs picking up a 70-68 win at the Greensboro Coliseum earlier this season. The Bulldogs have already won 12 Southern Conference games this season, which is more league wins than they have ever had since joining the league in 2008. Over the past two seasons alone, the Bulldogs have won 23 Southern Conference games, while UNCG has totaled 22.

Since joining the Southern Conference, there have been few matchups between the two that will have been as important as the one about to take place Wednesday night. A win by the Bulldogs will put them in prime position to garner their first-ever SoCon regular-season crown and top overall seed in Asheville, while a win by the Spartans would not only snap the three-game skid in the series, but would also put the Spartans in prime position to win what would be their fourth regular-season Southern Conference title (outright or shared) in the past seven seasons. The No. 1 overall seed in Asheville could be as important as ever, with the league winner getting to avoid playing two out of the top three teams in Asheville.

In some ways, the game, at least on the surface, seems almost a tad bit more important to Samford, who still has a game on the final day of the regular-season against Furman, which will take place inside the friendly confines of the Pete Hanna Center on the final day of the regular-season. The Bulldogs have a trio of players as good as any in the Southern Conference, and a trio of players as good as any in the Southern Conference, and a trio that will likely give the Bulldogs a legitimate chance to win it the SoCon Tournament in Asheville come March. Guard Ques Glover (15.0 PPG, 2.5 RPG) and forwards Logan Dye (14.0 PPG, 5.3 RPG) and Jermaine Marshall (12.0 PPG, 6.5 RPG). Marshall, who comes off the bench, is the league’s top sixth man. He’s a menace on the offensive glass and on the backboards in general. He’s also one of the top defensive players in the Southern Conference.

Wednesday night’s clash will give us a chance to see a team, in Samford, which enters the clash ranking second in the SoCon in scoring offense (77.9 PPG), fourth in field goal percentage (45.2%), The Bulldogs overall haven’t shot the ball that well from three-point range (33.6%) this season, however, since entering Southern Conference play, the Bulldogs are shooting almost percentage points higher (35.2%), as well as ranking third overall in the SoCon in three-point field goals made (122/8.7 PG) since the start of league play.

To put itself in prime position to win the Southern Conference regular-season crown on the final day of the regular-season against Furman, all the Bulldogs have to do is figure out a way to defeat the Spartans a fourth-straight time in the series, which is something the Bulldogs have never done in series history, and do it against the SoCon’s top defensive team. The only other three-game winning streak that Samford has enjoyed in the series came from 2013-15. Wednesday night’s clash between the two will end up marking the 32nd all-time meeting between the two, with the Spartans holding the 20-11 all-time series edge.

The Spartans enter sporting the league’s top scoring defense (63.8 PPG), field goal percentage defense (40.3%), three-point field goal percentage defense (31.0%), and rank fourth overall in rebounding margin (+3.1). The reason the Spartans find themselves in a position to dictate how things could go for the remainder of the season after tonight is because of the veteran leadership they have brought night-in and night-out during Southern Conference play, which includes the outstanding point guard play of Keyshaun Langley (14.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG). The addition of Keondre Kennedy (13.3 PPG, 6.1 RPG) to supplement both Keyshaun and Kobe Langley (4.7 PPG, 2.6 RPG) has been a stroke of genius from head coach Mike Jones, as he brought in Kennedy from the transfer portal.

Add to that the addition of Mikeal Brown-Jones (10.6 PPG, 4.3 RPG) from VCU to beef up an already strong group of defenders and rebounders in the paint, and the Spartans might have the pieces they were missing off last year’s 17-15 squad, which oh by the way ended with saw the NCAA Tournament dreams end with a 66-64 setback in the SoCon Tournament quarterfinals to Samford. Wednesday night’s clash should be the latest thriller in the series between the two.

Furman shoots for ninth-straight win at The Citadel Wednesday Night at The Citadel

Furman will be on the road Wednesday night to take on its arch-rival The Citadel, and the Paladins are in the middle of their longest winning streak since the start of the 2018-19 season, which saw the Paladins start the season with a 12-0 record, which eventually lead to the school’s first and only national Top 25 ranking.

While the Paladins are far from the Top 25 rankings, if one weren’t to know any better, they are playing like a team that might be one with the way they have been blitzing foes lately on the hardwood. Furman has back-to-back wins on the road at VMI and at home against Western Carolina, winning by margins of 31 and 34 points, respectively, and playing like the team many had envisioned prior to the season when many picked the Paladins to win the Southern Conference title.

It’s been a slow build for the Paladins, who have caught fire since a mid-January, 88-80, overtime loss to UNC Greensboro their home floor. Since, the Paladins have reeled off eight-straight wins, winning five of the eight games by scoring 80 or more points, including reaching 90 or more points on four occasions.

A major part of Furman’s recent successes have been the strong play turned in by J.P. Pegues (10.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 4.1 APG) at point guard, while Jalen Slawson (15.6 PPG, 7.1 RPG) and Mike Bothwell (18.4 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.3 APG) continue with the type of efficiency you might expect out of two Southern Conference Player of the Year candidates. The Paladins have more offensive weapons than anyone in the league, and when they are hitting on all cylinders, they are the best the SoCon has to offer.

With that said, The Citadel is a team that is dangerous, and one that Bob Richey knows his club can’t take lightly on the road Wednesday night. While the Paladins will be going in search of their eighth-straight win, by contrast, the Bulldogs will be looking to put an end to what has become a six-game losing streak. For Ed Conroy’s club, a win over the Paladins would be the kind of win he could build on moving towards the tournament and even next season.

The last time the Bulldogs defeated Furman came in Bob Richey’s first season as the head coach of the Furman basketball program, when the then Duggar Baucom Bulldogs stormed back from a 17-point deficit in the second half, eventually forcing overtime and posting what was a 100-92 win over the Paladins. In six seasons as the head coach of the Paladins, it marks the only team to reach triple digits against the Paladins in regulation or overtime.

When the two meet on Wednesday night, it will mark 219th all-time meeting between the two charter SoCon members, with the Paladins holding a 131-87 all-time series edge, and that includes a 97-72 win over the Bulldogs back in early January.  Mike Bothwell led one of many strong offensive nights this season, as he poured in a game-high 27 points in the win.

The Bulldogs played well this past Saturday on the road in a loss at one of the other three league leaders, facing off against the Samford Bulldogs, and it was The Citadel, who posted a flurry of 17 points in the final 1:38 of the contest only to lose, 76-70. Austin Ash (15.1 PPG, 4.7 RPG) posted a 21-point effort against Samford, while leading scorer Stephen Clark (16.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG) posted 13 in the road setback.

The Paladins managed to limit Ash to just eight points in the first meeting between the two, however, Clark did manage to add 18 points, three rebounds, two assists, and blocked a pair of shots before fouling out of the contest late. After tonight, the Paladins return home Sunday to face East Tennessee State in a 6 p.m. contest before celebrating Senior Day on Feb. 22 against Mercer.

Furman finishes the regular-season at Samford on Feb. 25 in a game that could very well decide the Southern Conference regular-season champion and top overall seed heading to Asheville. A win by the Paladins Wednesday night would mark the program’s 175th since the start of the 2015-16 season, including its 101st Southern Conference win.

Published by soconjohn

I am a lover of all things SoCon, and I have had a passion to write about, follow and tell the world about this great conference for pretty much my entire life. While I do love the SoCon, and live in the SoCon city, which is home to the Furman Paladins, have a passion for sports in general, with college football and college hoops topping the list.

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