It was a very interesting day of SoCon basketball.
There are now three undefeated teams left in conference play, as ETSU, UNCG and Furman remain unscathed. There are four winless teams in Chattanooga, The Citadel, VMI and Mercer.
The Bears are the most surprising team in that group. Few people would think they would have been grouped with those other three, but there problem is how difficult their schedule has been. The Bears looked much better against Furman on Saturday and looks like they will find their footing yet.
The three remaining teams all sit at 2-1 in conference play. Samford, Western Carolina and Wofford have all found their way to that mark.
There were no major surprises on Saturday. VMI tried to pull off the shocker of the young season early and nearly did it, but just came up short.
We seem to have established the seven teams fighting for the six byes, but it is still early in conference play and there is plenty of time for things to change. But let’s look closer at Saturday’s games.
Furman 74, Mercer 71
What Happened? Mercer was up 9 with about nine minutes left in the game, 59-50. But Furman, behind a big finish by Daniel Fowler, went on a big run late and won the game. Mercer absolutely dominated the boards, and also shot 67% from two point range. But the Bears made just 3 of 17 from three and were unable to consistently make the long range shots needed to win the game. Ria’n Holland wound up going 0 of 6 from long range, and scoring just 11 points. Desmond Ringer finished with 22. Furman made their free throws down the stretch and kept Mercer from making a comeback.
Stat of the Game: Mercer committed 16 turnovers. Furman committed just 8. In a game decided by one possession, that makes all the difference in the world. That is eight possessions the Paladins gained on the Bears due to turnovers. Mercer’s three point shooting did not help matters any for the Bears, but it was really the turnovers (and the Paladins ability to not turn the ball over) that made all the difference.
Player of the Game: Daniel Fowler wound up with 21 points on 6 of 11 shooting from the floor. He also made 3 of 7 from three and 6 of 6 from the free throw stripe. Fowler also had four rebounds, four assists and two steals. Fowler was clearly the player that made Furman go in this one. He scored fourteen points in the final six minutes of this one.
What does it mean to Mercer? The Bears now are 0-2 in SoCon play, but have played ETSU and Furman. That means that they have played two really good teams and lost to both of them, but the schedule is going to let up. The Bears next four games are not against the presumed Top Five teams. That means that they have a shot to go on a bit of a run here. Between now and January 20, the Bears should be favored each time out. Now is the time to start winning games if they want to get back on the right track.
What does it mean to Furman? The Paladins are now 3-0 in conference play and got the win against top competition that they were looking for. They go to Wofford next Saturday in a huge rivalry game and another critical showdown for the Paladins. Before then, they go to Chattanooga. Furman, one of the tri-champs in the regular season a year ago, looks like they are right there again. The Paladins had almost nothing to show for their championship a year ago. UNCG got the one seed in Asheville. ETSU won the tournament. But Furman didn’t even get to the SoCon Championship Game. They are looking to get something this year. They are positioning themselves for that kind of run.
UNCG 63, VMI 61
What Happened? The UNCG lead ballooned to 14 early in the second half, but VMI came roaring back, and even took the lead late in the game. It was eerily similar to UNCG’s loss to Presbyterian earlier in the season. But the Spartans defense kept them in the game and Francis Alonso was fouled shooting a three with under three seconds left. He knocked down two of the three free throws before Austin Vereen missed a three pointer at the buzzer that would have won the game.
Stat of the Game: The Spartans had an offensive rebounding percentage of 36.1% while Keydets were at only 14.3%. That was pretty much the difference in a game this close. If the Keydets could have come up with about two more offensive and two more defensive rebounds, they probably win this game. So close for VMI, yet so far away. UNCG’s size eventually did make the difference
Player of the Game: I guess I’ll go with James Dickey, who scored 14 points and collected 9 rebounds, five of them offensive. He had two blocks, two steals and an assist as well. Dickey has taken a step forward this year, but I think he still has another step he could take by March. He needs to take it if UNCG is going to get to the NCAA Tournament.
What does it mean to UNCG? UNCG does not play it’s best basketball away from home. At home, the Spartans look like the best team in the SoCon. On the road, I think it is fair to question if they are better than fifth in the SoCon. This was not a good showing, and showed a shocking lack of being able to deliver the knockout blow. They had VMI down, and could not deliver the punch to end it. That’s the same thing that happened at Presbyterian. With a trip to ETSU coming Thursday and another at Western Carolina next Saturday, this Spartans team needs to figure out how to play a more complete road game.
What does it mean to VMI? Just as I was ready to completely write off VMI and say they were just not very good, they play this game. The Keydets looked much better than they had in the previous two games. VMI is 0-3 in conference play, but showed a pulse today. The Keydets still go to ETSU, visit Western Carolina and host Mercer. That’s a ridiculous start to conference play. More than likely VMI pulls an upset or two at some point, but VMI has a long way to go if they want to get into the sixth and final bye spot.
ETSU 85, Chattanooga 66
What Happened? The Bucs jumped out to a huge early lead and put this one away very early. The Mocs never really got back into the game. ETSU made 56% of their shots and outrebounded the Mocs 42-29. The Mocs only made 15 of 27 free throws, which put them behind the eight ball as they attempted to make a comeback. Nat Dixon got 20 points for the Mocs and Joshua Phillips collected 17 points. Jalan McCloud scored in single digits for the second straight game for the Bucs. Desonta Bradford scored 13 points.
Stat of the Game: Makinde London fouled out in 17 minutes for the Mocs. The most talented Mocs player and the player most likely to be able to control Peter Jurkin was only able to play 17 minutes and fouled out. That was a huge difference in this one. It may not have been the only reason the Bucs won by 19, but it certainly was one of the main reasons.
Player of the Game: Peter Jurkin wound up with 15 points and 11 rebounds. He also had three blocks. As predicted in the preview article, Jurkin had a huge game and dominated the contest. The big man is really coming into his own, and he will be a huge asset moving forward for the Bucs. He is a critical player to the Bucs chances of repeating in Asheville.
What does it mean to ETSU? The Bucs are 3-0 in SoCon play, winning all three on the road by 18 or 19 points, an average of 18.7 points per game. That is remarkable. The Bucs get to take on UNCG on Thursday at home in their growing rivalry. This was another solid performance by the Bucs.
What does it mean to Chattanooga? The Mocs are now 0-3 in SoCon play. They play Furman at home on Wednesday. The Mocs are in real trouble for getting the sixth spot in the conference race, but they could still if they start getting hot. The injured Mocs need to start performing better if they want to make that run.
Wofford 109, The Citadel 92
What Happened? The Citadel jumped out to an early lead and were up 27-19. The Bulldogs have done that in all three conference games only to give up the lead. Wofford jumped and went up by 14, 69-55. But The Citadel was not done, as they trimmed the lead back down to 7. But Wofford was too much and pulled away for a relatively easy looking 17 point win.
Stat of the Game: The Terriers knocked down 53% of their shots. They also made 47% of their threes, knocking down 14 treys. Normally, that kind of shooting will get the job done. The Terriers offense has been playing well and the Bulldogs defense gives up points in bunches, so it was not particularly surprising, but it still was impressive to watch the Terriers shoot like that.
Player of the Game: Storm Murphy? Nathan Hoover? Trevor Stumpe? Tough call. I supposed we’ll go with Hoover, who scored 21 off the bench and knocked down 5 of 8 from three. He also made 4 of 6 from the free throw stripe. Hoover has not taken the leap I think many people were expecting to see this year out of Hoover, but maybe this game will change that and give him a boost of confidence.
What does it mean to The Citadel? The Bulldogs are now 0-3 in SoCon play and continue to struggle. They host Samford and Chattanooga next weekend in two must win games if they want to get into the race for the sixth spot in the conference race. They could do it. But the Bulldogs gave up 107 and 109 this week to SoCon foes. Not a good look.
What does it mean to Wofford? The Terriers are now back to 2-1 in SoCon play. They step out of conference play against Harvard on Wednesday before hosting Furman on Saturday. This is a team more than capable of makng a run at a SoCon title. It would certainly help matters for them if they could come up with a win against next Saturday. This game helped set the table for the Terriers. They did what they needed to do this week and came up with two relatively easy wins.
Samford 85, Western Carolina 71
What Happened? The key stretch for the game was the last four minutes of the first half. Samford was up 30-24 with four minutes left, but before Matt Halvorsen knocked down a three pointer at the buzzer for the Catamounts, the Bulldogs went on a 12-2 run. It went from a 6 point game and a 16 point game. After that, the Catamounts were never really able to get back into the game and the Bulldogs just kept them at arm’s reach the rest of the night.
Stat of the Game: Samford knocked down 52.6% from three point range. Not only that, but Western Carolina took more than half of their shots from three and made just 35% of them. That can make the difference in most games. The Bulldogs shooting was really good in this one.
Player of the Game: It’s time to give Eric Adams some credit. Adams is a senior that has never given many minutes to the Bulldogs. Yet here he is, scoring in double figures for the fifth time in six games. Adams scored 13 points on 6 of 7 shooting from the floor. He also collected nine rebounds and five offensive rebounds. He also had two steals and two blocks. Adams is really starting to come on strong.
What does it mean to Western Carolina? The Catamounts came in 2-0 in conference play and riding high. After this disappointing performance, they are just 2-1. They fought hard, and going 2-1 to open conference play on the road is impressive. Next week they get Mercer and UNCG at home. If the Catamounts find a way to steal at least one of those in Cullowhee, suddenly this team could be taken a lot more seriously in the conference race. The early momentum is not completely gone, but it is hurt by this performance.
What does it mean to Samford? Suddenly, the disappointing Bulldogs are 2-1 in conference and look to be the mild favorite to get the six spot in the SoCon Tournament. A trip to The Citadel on Thursday provides another opportunity to come up with a SoCon win and really take hold of the final bye race. A win there would set them up for a nice chance to get a win at Mercer next Saturday and a chance to announce that maybe they are better than we all think they are.