Mercer. Western Carolina. The Citadel. ETSU.
Those are the teams that won on Saturday, and for some reason these wins felt bigger for each of those teams. It feels like these four teams and UNCG are the five teams playing the best right now. Wofford and Furman seem to be struggling- but both did just beat Western Carolina last week, and Furman did beat Mercer this week. So, that’s probably exaggerating the situation. Still, Western Carolina is in a spot no one expected them to be in. The Citadel is clearly playing almost as well as anyone in the SoCon.
ETSU continues to be the Bucs. They are good. Really good. Can they get an at large to the NCAA Tournament? It’s out there. But they need to keep on winning.
Mercer 73, Wofford 65
What Happened? Mercer was called for a technical foul with just over 4:30 minutes left. Cam Jackson and Fletcher Magee knocked down all four free throws, giving the Bears a 59-58 lead. The Bears went on an 11-2 run over the next four minutes. Ross Cummings three with just over a minute left gave the Bears a six point lead and was the critical shot.
Stat of the Game: The normally very good shooting Terriers team was held to 35.7% shooting from the floor. The Bears defense stepped up huge against the Wofford offense and performed in a way that they have not often done during conference play. If the Bears defense plays like that, they will win a bunch of games the rest of the way.
Player of the Game: Ross Cummings. He had not appeared in six games this year. He had only played double digit minutes three times and never more than 16. Then in the January 20th overtime loss to UNCG, he played 9 minutes and scored 11 points (this after only scoring 32 all year heading into that game). Since then, he has played at least 18 minutes each night and scored in double digits three out of four games. But this was his coming out party. He played his most minutes of the year (34), scored a season high 22, a season high 5 rebounds and a season high two steals. Nevermind that he went 0 for 5 from the free throw line. He made 6 of 8 from three and 8 of 10 from the floor overall. Cummings is a revelation at the moment.
What does it mean to Wofford? That’s three losses in four games for the Tar Heel beaters. The Terriers are doing their best to race away from the top of the SoCon. They are in third place still, but trending the wrong way. They host Samford and go to Wofford next week in a critical week for where they are going to wind up in this SoCon race.
What does it mean to Mercer? The Bears are tied for sixth now, but do not own the tiebreaker against The Citadel at the moment, so they are seventh. Mercer has the mid-week off and then they go to Chattanooga and Samford next week. The Bears need to keep on winning to get back into this race. Mercer is a solid team that has been underperforming. If they can move back up the conference standings, they can be a dangerous team in Asheville.
The Citadel 100, Furman 92 (OT)
What Happened? Furman was up 75-58 with under ten minutes to play, but could not close the deal. The Bulldogs scored 30 points in the final ten minutes and the Paladins scored just 13 points. Frankie Johnson made the game tying lay up, and the Bulldogs dominated overtime to come up with the stunning win that no one thought was coming.
Stat of the Game: The Citadel made 24-31 from the free throw line and Furman made 15-20. The Bulldogs made nine more free throws than the Paladins. It’s not that Furman was bad from the free throw line- it’s that The Citadel shot eleven more free throws.
Player of the Game: Zane Najdawi scored 28 points and collected 10 rebounds. He made 9 of 12 from the floor, 4 of 5 from long range, and 6 of 11 from the free throw line. He also came up with three blocks. Matt Frierson and Kaelon Harris both scored in double figures and Frankie Johnson made huge shots.
What does it mean to Furman? The Paladins are 3-4 in their last seven games and sit in a tie for third with Wofford. The scary thing is they are only up by one game on the five seed. They are down by a game and a half on the two seed. Things are unraveling for the Paladins. They are still a good team with the potential to win the tournament. That being said, they need to get back on track. With a huge set of home games this week against UNCG and Wofford, the Paladins need to get back on track. Now.
What does it mean to The Citadel? It’s time to get serious about The Citadel. This might be just a hot streak, but it’s time to take it more serious than that. Over these eight days, the Bulldogs won at Mercer, then lost to ETSU by two at home, then beat Wofford and Furman at home. The Bulldogs 3-1 mark in the last week makes it seem like they could be the second best team in the SoCon right now. Could that be true? It’s time to take that as a serious possibility. They visit Chattanooga and Samford this week. The Bulldogs are in sixth right now. Preseason this team was a darkhorse contender in the SoCon. Then, when Preston Parks left, it seemed very unlikely that they could make a run. Now, we get to find out if they really are that kind of team. If they beat Chattanooga and Samford on the road, they’ll really legitimize themselves.
ETSU 81, Chattanooga 61
What Happened? Halfway through the first half, the Mocs and Bucs were tied. But the Bucs run over the last part of the first half put them up double digits and they never really looked back. The Bucs are the first place team in the SoCon. The Mocs are last in the SoCon. That basically explains everything you need to know about this one.
Stat of the Game: ETSU shot 56.7% from the floor while Chattanooga shot 39%. The Bucs shot very well and the Mocs did not. That was a major difference in this contest. When one team shoots the ball well and one team does not, it makes a significant difference.
Player of the Game: I could go Desonta Bradford again. Now, I’ll go with Peter Jurkin. He scored 16 points on 7 of 13 shooting from the floor. He also collected 10 rebounds. He got one steal and one block.
What does it mean to Chattanooga? The Mocs are in last place in the conference. They are 2.5 games back from sixth at the moment, and they get both teams that are tied for sixth at home this weekend. The Citadel and Mercer both come to Chattanooga and the Mocs can change the current dynamic of the conference race with a sweep this weekend. Can they get that done? Who knows? But the Mocs have been playing well, just not winning. If that turns around this weekend, things could look different by Saturday evening.
What does it mean to ETSU? Is ETSU going to lose twice down the stretch and put the SoCon up for grabs? They could, but that seems unlikely. They only have three road games left, and they are the next three games. They go to VMI, UNCG and Western Carolina. The Bucs continue to look dominant, but there’s not much to say at this point about them. They are good. Very good. Can they lose in Asheville? Sure. Will they be the 1 seed heading there? Almost certainly.
Western Carolina 88, Samford 71
What Happened? The Catamounts double digit halftime lead was trimmed to four early in the second half. The Catamounts then went on a huge run and blew the game wide open. The Catamounts red hot shooting and the Bulldogs cold shooting made a huge difference in this contest. The Catamounts only had two players in double figures- but they combined for 53 points. The Catamounts bench outscored Samford, 43-11.
Stat of the Game: Western Carolina outrebounded Samford 51-25. That domination on the glass was the number one reason that the Catamounts were able to win with the ease that they did.
Player of the Game: It would be easy to go with one of my personal favorite players in the SoCon, Mike Amius. But he’s old news. The real news is Devin Peterson. He’s seen his production fall off this year and his minutes have dropped as a result, but he scored 25 with 6 rebounds and three assists in this one. He made 10 of 16 from the floor. Could this be the game that sparks Peterson? The Catamounts really need Peterson if they are going to make a serious run. This could be huge for them.
What does it mean to Samford? The Bulldogs are only half a game out of the final bye, but let’s face it- they have not played like one of the top six teams in the conference for a while now. They are 1-7 in their last eight games. They go to Wofford and host The Citadel and Mercer this week. With The Citadel and Mercer each one half game ahead of them, they can make some noise this week. But they need to play a lot better than they have been playing if they want to get that job done.
What does it mean to Western Carolina? The Catamounts are 2 games ahead of the seven spot and just two and a half games out of the second seed. Wait, what? That’s right- the Catamounts are only one game out of the three seed and right in the race for moving up the ladder heading to Asheville. This team, that got destroyed by Furman a week ago, finds itself in an interesting spot. They play at VMI and UNCG this week. Hey, pull off a couple of wins this week and who knows? We may be talking about how the Catamounts have a shot at the two seed by the end of next week.