It was an unbelievable night of basketball in Asheville on Sunday. Western Carolina brought a ton of fans, and there were a few times the energy in the arena got on their side, but the Wofford Terriers did what an older, tournament-hardened team is supposed to do: take the crowd out of the game and silence them whenever needed.
Rhett Harrelson played his heart out for Western Carolina, throwing his body around late desperately trying to get the Catamounts back in the game. James Sinclair did everything he could do, but he was chased around by Karl Cochran all night and harassed into a bad night from the floor. That was one of the biggest differences: Cochran looked fresh; Sinclair did not.
The Catamounts did not go away without a fight, but shot just 38.1 percent from the floor against the Terriers. Wofford shot 55 percent. It was the 14 offensive rebounds by Western Carolina and just five by Wofford that kept Western Carolina in it, but at some point you have to put the ball in the basket. The Catamounts just did not do that enough.
Stop me if you've heard this before. Furman was behind at halftime and things even looked bleak about midway through the second half, only for the Paladins to come storming back and come up with a stirring win. That's what happened against Chattanooga on Saturday when they trailed 31-25 at halftime, and were down 46-40 in the second half. It is what happened again Sunday when the Paladins trailed 31-23 at halftime, and 39-28 over seven minutes into the second half.
Kris Acox was amazing and Stephen Croone made big play after big play down the stretch. After Devin Sibley fouled out, both Acox and Croone really stepped up their games. On a night when Daniel Fowler, Geoff Beans and Kendrec Ferrara combined to go 0-for-15 from the floor and score a combined five points, they had to have someone step up and score at least sometime.
However, it was the Paladins defense that really stood up and made a stand against Mercer. The Bears went into a rut on offense where it looked like they might never score another point. They just could not put the ball in the basket and Furman crushed them on the glass. The Paladins had a 46.2 offensive rebounding percentage and the Bears managed 27 percent. That was one of the keys to the game heading in and the Paladins absolutely crushed it.
That means that in Monday's championship game, Wofford (the league's regular season champ) and Furman (the last place team during the regular season) will hook up for the SoCon's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. These two teams hooked up on the final day of the regular season and Furman lost by just two points, but Croone did not play.
Wofford had nothing to play for that day. Will the Terriers come out and play better? Furman has beaten the second place and the third place team on back to back days. Over the last sixty-plus years, no team has won four games in four days to win the SoCon Tournament. Will Furman become the first?
It has been a memorable, improbable run for the Paladins. They play eight guys regularly and four of them are freshman. This team has grown up before our eyes in this SoCon Tournament. Niko Medved has done an incredible job with this club. Do they have it in them to take one final step?
We'll find out on Monday night.
Player of the Day: Kris Acox, Furman
All-Tournament Team for Friday:
Kris Acox, Furman
Karl Cochran, Wofford
Spencer Collins, Wofford
Stephen Croone, Furman
Ike Nwamu, Mercer
Wofford 73, Western Carolina 61
Furman 52, Mercer 49