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SoCon Tournament Recap 2016: Part 2

Wrapping Up The Season And Looking Forward To The Postseason

Mike Brown Leads Catamounts To Epic Win With Career High 34
Mike Brown Leads Catamounts To Epic Win With Career High 34
The Southern Conference

GAMES OF THE TOURNAMENT:

ASHEVILLE, N.C.--There were two games in the 2016 Southern Conference Tournament that went to overtime, making it just the fourth tournament in the history of the 95 previously played to feature two overtime games.

Wofford and Western Carolina had just played each other nine days prior to each facing each other in the opening game for in each in quarterfinal action of the the 2016 Southern Conference Tournament. It would as if the the two-time defending champions and No. 4 seeded Wofford Terriers refused to relinquish their grip on the tournament title, but eventually, buoyed by a near capacity crowd, Western Carolina was able to take down the Terriers, 88-83, in the tournament quarterfinal clash, but it took two overtimes to accomplish the feat.

Already having defeated the Terriers, 53-48, a week earlier, the Catamounts had their work cut out for them, as rarely does a team defeat Wofford head coach Mike Young twice in one season. But that would turn out to be the case, as the Catamounts seemingly matched the Terriers shot-for-shot down the stretch in the contest, as Mike Brown scored a career-high 34 points to lead the Catamounts in the victorious effort. Adding 25 points and 14 boards to the fold, was Torrion Brummitt, marking his ninth double-double of the season.

But the key to the win might well have been the play of Justin Browning, who added 11 points, with three huge blocks, a pair of steals and six boards. Two of the biggest plays of the game were made by Western's Browning and Brown. The Terriers first threatened to take control of the game late in the first overtime, taking a five-point lead when C.J. Neumann dunked it home to give the Terriers a 68-63 lead.

However, the next time down, a player that normally delivers in the clutch on the defensive end, now provided maybe the biggest shot of the game on the offensive end, knocking down a triple from the left elbow to get the Cats back to with two (68-66) with 1:56 remaining. Then, after Neumann came alive again, playing like a cagey veteran, got another layup to extend Wofford's lead back to four (70-66) with 1:56 remaining. But this time, Western's Mike Brown canned a triple for three of his career-high 34 points, bringing the Catamounts back within a single point (70-69) with just 1:45 remaining to make things even more interesting.

The Catamounts then got a big block from Browning on the other end, and with the ball back in its possession Browning came up big once again, getting a rebound and put-back off a Brummitt miss, and gave the Catamounts a 71-70 lead.

But Freshman of the Year Fletcher Magee was not done, as he came off that Wofford patented elbow screen and hit an off-balance triple with 16 seconds to play, making it a 73-71 contest. Following a timeout, the Terriers fouled Brown, forcing him to knock down both free throws to get the game to another overtime with five seconds remaining. But the cool, calm and collected Brown stepped to the line like a senior should, straightening the net on both foul shots to tie the game, 73-73, sending the game to a second overtime.

In the second overtime, Western finally showed the kind of senior leadership that had led it to wins in seven of the final games of the season, and would out-score the the Terriers 15-10 in the final overtime.  It appeared the Terriers might be ready to make a late charge, with a Jaylen Allen triple getting the Terriers to within 84-83 with a three-pointer from Jaylen Allen--a native of nearby Johnson City--and the triple from Allen trimmed the Catamount lead to a point with 14 seconds remaining.

Western closed out the game with four-straight made foul shots by Devin Peterson and Rhett Harrelson finally closed out the Terriers, which was something the Catamounts had failed to do in five of the previous six tournaments. The lone win for Western over Wofford in the Southern Conference Tournament came in the 2012 tournament, as the Catamounts posted an 82-59 win.

Wofford's Run Ends, So What Now?

It's been quite the run for the Terriers--four titles in six seasons--and now what's next for a team that had its six-game Southern Conference Tournament winning streak halted by Western? The Terriers finished out the season with a 15-17 record, and will bid farewell to another prized talent with the graduation of Upstate native Spencer Collins (14.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG), who ended his career with 1,696-career points, struggled in his final game against the Catamounts, posting just five points. Collins' 1,696 points saw him finish ninth in school history in scoring.

Collins, Justin Gordon and C.J. Neumann will be key losses for the Terriers, but the nucleus of the team returning is guard-strong, and those guys will not likely let  Wofford go anywhere anytime soon. Fletcher Magee (13.8 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 91 threes), Eric Garcia (10.3 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 4.8 APG) Jaylen Allen (4.7 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 26 three-pointers) and Derrick Thomas (2.1 PPG, 1.3 RPG) will form that key quartet returning for the the Terriers.

In my opinion, the bigger loss than even Collins is Gordon because he was a player that like VMI's Phillip Anglade, played bigger than he actually was. No player seemingly improved as much over a four-year span as Gordon did. Gordon had the kind of athleticism that could make him a presence even while developing as a player, and that's sometimes hard to find, especially at a school at Wofford. The Terriers have signed a pair of talented guards in Nathan Hoover and Kevon Tucker and a big man out of Peachtree City, GA, in 6-7 Dishon Lowery from McIntosh High School, who finished 29-3 this past season, and also produced Jordan Lyons, who is headed to Furman.

The 15-17 mark is obviously a disappointment, and marks the first losing season for the Terriers since the the 2012-13 season that the Terriers finished with a 13-19 season. The Terriers will be back and better than ever in 2016-17. Head coach Mike Young and his excellent, young staff will get the ship righted in 2016-17.

What Does The Future Hold For The Catamounts?

The Catamounts would see their 2016 Southern Conference Tournament once again end in the semifinal round, as Larry Hunter's club has now reached at least the semifinal round of the conference tournament in six of the past seven tournaments. The Catamounts were eventually ousted by champion Chattanooga, 73-69, as the Mocs rebounded following a sluggish start against Samford.

As for Western Carolina, the answer is not as simple. It's not going to be easy for head coach Larry Hunter to replace four seniors like Justin Browning (9.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 2.3 SPG), Mike Brown (17.1 PPG,5.8 RPG), Torrion Brummitt (14.1 PPG, 7.5 RPG) and Rhett Harrelson (11.1 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 81 three-pointers), which accounts for over 90% of the team's scoring. Brown was named to the First Team All-SoCon Tournament Team, while Brummitt garnered second team honors.

Brown had one of the best careers as an all-around basketball player in the history of Catamount basketball. He finished his career with 1,294 points, 610 rebounds, 232 assists and 123 steals. He is just the sixth Catamount to have ever reached 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, dish out 200 assists and record 100 steals.

Returning to the fold next season will be guards Elijah Pughsley (8.5 PPG, 1.5 RPG) and Marc Gosselin (3.1 PPG, 3.4 RPG) both return as two important pieces for Larry Hunter's team next season. Aaron and Ashley Williams return off the bench, as does Deriece Parks. Hababoubacar Mutombo (3.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG), who seemingly got better and better as the season progressed, will take on a more active role as a scoring threat in 2016-17. Another key returnee is Jesse Deloach (0.7 PPG, 1.8 RPG), who will look to continue as a big man next season.

The Catamount coaching staff verbal commitments from a pair of talented players, in 6-4 guard Onno Steger and 6-8 forward Adam Sledd, however, the Catamounts are still hot on the trail of 5-11 guard Jalen Sanders, who the staff is hoping to get a commitment from, as he has a game that would remind Catamount fans a lot of Trey Sumler.

The Catamounts finished the season with a 16-16 overall mark, hitting a surge down the stretch as you knew Larry Hunter's club would hit. They exceeded expectations, finishing the season fifth in the league's conference standings with a 10-8 mark, while having been picked seventh in the preseason. That's definitely a win for Larry Hunter and his staff. Western will be picked in the lower half of the league based on what they lost this season, however, Hunter might just be the best coach in the league, and as we saw this past season, he might be able to flip the script once again as the kids say these days.

VMI and Samford Provide Thriller In SoCon Opener

QJ Peterson

QJ Peterson Dribbles Against Samford's Defense In Opener (Photo Courtesy of the Southern Conference)

The opening game of the 2016 Southern Conference Tournament was certainly one of its most thrilling, as the two teams who took on each other--No. 8 Samford and No. 9 VMI--didn't have much between them in the two regular-season meetings between them and that fact would be emphasized even more in the tournament's opening game.

In a matchup between the two teams that had accomplished former college players leading in program, in Samford's Scott Padgett, and VMI's Dan Earl, it would be a battle of athleticism and youth in the league tournament lid-lifter.

However, for a second-straight season, it would be VMI bowing out after only one round, dropping a 92-85 decision to the Bulldogs, despite getting 27 points from QJ Peterson. Peterson was one of four Keydets in double figures in the contest, and Tim Marshall, who finished with 20 points on the night in what turned out to be the final game of his VMI career, had one of the highlights of the tournament with a big-time one-handed jam off a feed from Peterson at the 13:41 minute mark of the second half, which gave the Keydets a 53-52 lead.

Samford was able to overcome the pesky Keydets with its tremendous backcourt tandem of Darius Jones-Gibson and Christen Cunningham, who posted a combined 46 points, helped key the win. Jones Gibson connected on just 8-of-20 points shooting from the field and was 8-for-10 from the foul line.

In his final game of his VMI career, Phillip Anglade would hit a decisive layup with 1:04 remaining to send the game into an extra session. Anglade finished his final outing with the Keydets with 19 points, five boards, three blocks and had two steals, as one of four Keydets in double figures in the loss.

With Samford leading 82-80, it was a Matt Rose three that made the game and then after a defensive stop, the Bulldogs were able to get a pair of free throws from Jones-Gibson would extend Samford's lead to seven, at 87-80, with half-a-minute to play. The Keydets would not get closer than five the rest of the way, and Samford had its first win in the conference tournament for the first time since a 70-56 win over Appalachian State in what was the Mountaineers' final game as a Southern Conference member.

Looking To The Future For Samford and VMI:

Samford looks to be a real contender next season, however, losing starters Jamal Shabazz (7.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG) and Darius Jones-Gibson (15.0 PPG, 2.8 RPG) both to graduation won't be east to replace. Iman Johnson (4.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG) is another that must be replaced for Scott Padgett's Bulldogs.

The good news is the Bulldogs will have Christen Cunningham (14.4 PPG, 3.9 APG) will return as an All-SoCon guard, and is coming off a good Southern Conference Tournament, scoring 21 and 18 points in tournament games against VMI and Chattanooga.

Also returning are three players from an outstanding recruiting class brought in by Scott Padgett last year, with the return of Dakota Quinn (2.6 PPG, 1.8 RPG), sharp-shooting Matt Rose (9.0 PPG,4.2 RPG, team-leading 63 triples) and Wyatt Walker (10.6 PPG, 6.0 RPG) all return to the fold.

Mercer's Frustrating Season:

Phillip Leonard and the Mercer Bears knocked off The Citadel on Friday in the Southern Conference Tournament.

Phillip Leonard (pictured above) Photo courtesy of the Southern Conference

Frustrating and tragic are two ways to describe the latter part of the season for the Mercer Bears, which came into the 96th edition of the Southern Conference Tournament sporting seven-straight losses and had slipped from the No. 2 seed on Feb. 2 to the No. 7 seed by the end of the campaign.

On Feb. 6, Mercer basketball player Jibri Bryan was senselessly shot and killed at a local convenience store in Macon, jarring not only the Mercer community, but the entire college basketball world. After defeating The Citadel in an emotional return to the hardwood for the first time after the tragedy, getting an 88-72 win over the Bulldogs. Then, a gut-wrenching 62-54 overtime loss to Chattanooga without leading scorer Jestin Lewis and one of the team's top rebounders, Desmond Ringer, who was also suspended, might have served as some hope heading down the stretch.

While the Bears didn't manage to win any of their final seven games of the season, it wasn't as if their was any quit in Bob Hoffman's club, which still ended up with at least 19 wins for a fifth-straight season, which is a remarkable run of success even if the season ended on a sour note. The 19 wins matches last season's total,which saw the Bears qualify for the CBI, defeating Stony Brook before losing to UL-Monroe.

Somewhat  remarkably, Bob Hoffman's team finds itself back in the postseason, and rightfully so, although anyone can hard fault the struggles this team had down the stretch and even could have notched a top six bye spot should the Bears had been able to knock of UNCG in the final game of the season, losing a 64-62 game to end the season.

That meant the Bears opened the Southern Conference Tournament with a thrilling 69-67 win over The Citadel to snap the long losing streak and improve to 19-14. Using a strong 16-point effort from Demetre Rivers, while senior Phillip Rivers had 11 points and 11 boards, while dishing out seven assists in one of his most complete games of his career.

In the SoCon quarterfinals, the Bears faced second-seeded ETSU and ran out of gas in the second half, after trailing just 37-35 at the break. That came after falling behind 17-5 in the opening following a Lester Wilson three 4:57 into the game.

Mercer did not fold, and much to its credit, took the fight right at the Bucs in this old A-Sun rivalry clash from the past few years, as the Bears out-scored the Bucs 30-20 over the final 15 minutes of the half to get within two at the break.

When ETSU's TJ Cromer hit a triple to put the Bucs up 60-49 with 8:10 left. The Bears would get it to nine once more, but couldn't threaten no further.

With a 19-14 record, including an impressive early-season win over Arkansas, the Bears will be back in the CIT for the first time since 2012--the year they won it by defeating Stu Morrow's Utah State Aggies in Logan. It would be a prelude to wins over Tennessee in the NIT a year later, a win over nationally-acclaimed Duke in 2014, and then last year, a win in the CBI against Stony Brook before a loss to UL-Monroe.

All told, Hoffman's Bears have won 116 games over the past five seasons heading into the CIT. The Bears also were without Ike Nwamu this season, who transferred to UNLV last spring.

Summing Up A Wild SoCon Tournament and Season:

--SoCon will have four teams in the postseason: UTC (NCAA); Furman (CIT); Mercer (CIT); ETSU (Hoping for potential NIT bid, but probably CBI)

--Only two of the nine tournament games were more than a 10-point margin in victory. The last time the tournament had just two games decided by more than a 10-point margin was 11 years ago in Chattnooga, with the Mocs taking the crown with a 66-62 win over UNCG

Tournament Most Outstanding Player
Greg Pryor, Chattanooga

All-Tournament Team
First team
T.J. Cromer, ETSU
Ge’Lawn Guyn, ETSU
Tre’ McLean, Chattanooga
Greg Pryor, Chattanooga
Mike Brown, Western Carolina

Second team
Desonta Bradford, ETSU
Devin Sibley, Furman
QJ Peterson, VMI
Torrion Brummitt, Western Carolina
Fletcher Magee, Wofford

Special thanks to the Southern Conference staff: Laura Hayes (Executive Assistant to the Commissioner), Jason Yaman (Media Relations Director) John Iamarino (Commissioner), Geoff Cabe (Associate Commissioner) and Sue Arakis (Associate Commissioner/Women's Administrator), who continue to run a first-class operation. I remain grateful to the aforementioned quartet for their continued hospitality as the years go by.