While the ETSU-UNCG game made all the headlines, the more important games in this mid-week session of SoCon basketball may well wind up being Samford-The Citadel and Western Carolina-Mercer.
With Samford and Western Carolina coming up with the wins, suddenly it appears that those two teams may belong in the top six of the league and that Mercer does not belong in that group. As the Bulldogs and Catamounts are now each 3-1 in SoCon play, they find themselves well ahead of Chattanooga, The Citadel, VMI and Mercer (combined 0-14 in SoCon play).
Expectations have been altered. Is there time to turn around the season for one of the four winless teams? Sure there is. Could they get a bye? Absolutely. It’s just that suddenly we are viewing Samford and Western Carolina completely different than we did just three weeks ago. Can they win the SoCon regular season title? That seems unlikely. Is one capable of pulling off a couple of upsets in Asheville and winning the tournament. Absolutely. Nothing shows how much the expectations for these two teams have changed over the last fee weeks more than that.
ETSU 68, UNCG 58
What Happened? The Spartans lead about halfway through the second half 42-41. The Bucs then went on a 13-1 run and took a commanding lead that they would not relinquish the rest of the way. The Bucs were epitomized during that stretch as five different guys scored the 13 points. That’s impressive. This Bucs team does not have one superstar- they have a whole lot of really good parts that come together and play superbly together. They deserve a ton of credit for their unselfish play and Steve Forbes deserves a lot of high praise for how he has gotten this team to come together in that way.
Stat of the Game: The Spartans made just 33% of their shots from the floor, and Francis Alonso was held to 4 of 11 shooting from the floor and ten points. The Spartans have proven they can win with defense, but they are not yet to the Bucs level defensively. If the Bucs play defense like that, they are going to be very difficult to beat.
Player of the Game: Again, team concept for the Bucs, but I guess I’ll go with Desonta Bradford. He wound up with 12 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks and a steal. Bradford filled up the entire stat sheet. He is probably the closest thing to a “star” the Bucs have, though I think Jurkin, Hodges and McCloud all have more ability to be true stars. Bradford is very consistent, though.
What does it mean to UNCG? You are expected to lose conference road games to top teams, so this does not kill the Spartans. Still, this loss will leave a bit of a mark on the Spartans. They need to rebound when they go to Cullowhee to take on the 3-1 Catamounts. If UNCG can find a way to come up with a win against Western Carolina, then everything is OK. If the Spartans respond by letting one loss turn into two, things could go downhill for this club quickly.
What does it mean to ETSU? The Bucs have won 11 of 12, with the lone loss a blown 20 point lead against #10 Xavier to lose by 2. In other words, they are red hot and playing great basketball. Can they maintain this level for the remainder of the season? If they do, the Bucs may well escape conference play with no more than 1 or 2 losses. They go to Furman a week from tonight and that game may well dictate exactly where ETSU really will stand in the SoCon race. The Bucs are the clear favorite at this point, I’d say.
Western Carolina 58, Mercer 56
What Happened? Stephon Jelks did everything in his power to keep the Bears in the game, but it was not enough. Mike Amius scored 21 and both teams were very strong defensively. These two teams each looked like elite defenses on this night as the Catamounts went up by two scores with about a minute left and then knocked in enough free throws to hold on for the two point win over the Bears.
Stat of the Game: The Catamounts had a 36% offensive rebounding percentage. The Bears had only a 23% offensive rebounding percentage. That made a huge difference in this one as the extra possessions were very important for the Catamounts in this one score game.
Player of the Game: Marc Gosselin wound up with 11 points and 11 rebounds, including knocking down a huge three right around the one minute mark. Gosselin knocked down the big shot and had a double-double. He can be a very valuable contributor for this Catamounts team.
What does it mean to Mercer? The Bears are suddenly 0-3 in conference play and 10-21 in their last 31 conference games. One of the favorites to win the league just three weeks ago appears to be out of the race for first already, and might be in some trouble as they try to hunt down a bye. They play Samford and Chattanooga at home in their next two games so that should be an opportunity to get some wins. But they pretty much have to have both of them.
What does it mean to Western Carolina? The Catamounts are now 3-1 in conference play, and it may be time to take them seriously in the race for not only a bye, but maybe something more. They host UNCG and VMI in their next two games. Win both of those and suddenly this team becomes a real threat to maybe even finish higher in the standings than any of us want to admit. That being said, the Catamounts have won two of their three conference games by two points. Being able to win close games is a good quality to have and the Catamounts are on a roll right now.
Furman 73, Chattanooga 55
What Happened? The Mocs trailed 49-46 with just 9:46 left in the contest last night. After that, the Mocs committed six turnovers and scored just nine points. The Paladins took control of the game and pulled away, spoiling the Mocs best conference effort of the season, but propelling themselves to a relatively easy 18 point win.
Stat of the Game: Furman collected 34 rebounds, Chattanooga got just 21. Furman dominated the glass. Both teams shot OK (though the Mocs really struggled from three) but Furman controlling the glass helped give the Paladins the edge in the end.
Player of the Game: Matt Rafferty had 17 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. He made 8 of 11 from the floor. The Mocs continue to struggle mightily with other teams big men. Rafferty made the Mocs pay in the paint and dominated the Mocs.
What does it mean to Furman? The Paladins are now 4-0 in SoCon play and survived the best performance of conference play from the Mocs. They face a bunch of good teams over their next six. They play Wofford, ETSU, Samford, UNCG, Western Carolina and Mercer in their next six. While the Paladins have been playing well so far, they have not played a huge road game yet in conference play. That will change on Saturday when they go to Wofford.
What does it mean to Chattanooga? The Mocs are 0-4 in SoCon play, but showed some signs of life in this one. It was a late rally by Furman that put the game away. The Mocs go to The Citadel, Mercer and Wofford in their next three. There is a decent chance at getting a win in Charleston on Saturday. The Mocs desperately need something to go their way.
Samford 107, The Citadel 91
What Happened? It was another big first half run against The Citadel, as Samford went on a 26-5 run to go from up 24-19 to up 50-24. That essentially ended the game before halftime in Samford’s favor. This seems to be happening a lot to The Citadel. A player that will not be mentioned later but deserves mention is Justin Coleman- he finished with 13 points and 13 assists. Triston Chambers also had 24 points. He’s averaging 14.3 in conference play after averaging just 4.0 points per game out of conference.
Stat of the Game: Hard to come up with one stat. Samford made 18 of 32 from three point range and 21 of 31 from two point range. They also made 11 of 14 from the free throw line. When you shoot that well from everywhere on the floor, you are going to win a lot of basketball games. Samford made them from everywhere in this one.
Player of the Game: Demetrius Denzel-Dyson wound up with 26 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. He made 10 of 14 from the floor and 5 of 8 from three point range. He really filled up the box score for the Bulldogs in this one. He has really stepped up his game recently.
What does it mean to Samford? Samford is now 3-1 in SoCon play. They play Mercer, Furman and Wofford in their next three games. The win by Samford has put them in a great position to contend for not only a bye spot but also possibly more. They are in the third spot in the conference race, and that makes this team very interesting, the closer we get to Wyatt Walker returning. This is a Samford team that is starting to find their rhythm and figure out how to win. This has been an impressive start to conference play.
What does it mean to The Citadel? The Bulldogs now find themselves 0-4 in conference play. They host Chattanooga (also 0-4) on Saturday. That is a game that The Citadel has to have if they want to get back into the bye race. Regardless The Citadel is in trouble. They are not a particularly good team right now. This loss really puts them behind the eight ball in their quest to get up to the sixth spot in the tournament.