SPARTANBURG, S.C -- Over the past few seasons, the rivalry between Furman and Wofford on the Southern Conference hardwood has become one of the best in the league.
On Saturday night at the Benjamin-Johnson Arena, the two schools separated by a 45-minute drive on I-85 met for the first of two matchups during the 2016-17 season. Their past four games against each other had been decided by a combined eight points.
With four NCAA Tournament appearances in the past seven seasons, Wofford has established itself as one of the SoCon’s elite basketball programs. Since Niko Medved took over four years ago, he has tried to build a program that mimics the success that head coach Mike Young has enjoyed during his tenure at Wofford.
But it has not always been easy for Young, who is the dean of head coaches in the Southern Conference. This season, the Terriers have started slow, and entered the Furman game with a 6-11 overall record and just a 1-3 mark in league action.
Young is now in his 15th season at the helm of the Terrier basketball program. During that time, Young has compiled a 239-220 record. Those 239 wins as a head coach ranks him fourth in Southern Conference history, and he recently surpassed his predecessor, Richard Johnson, as the second-winningest coach in Wofford basketball history.
While Johnson did much to lay the foundation for Division I basketball at Wofford, Young has taken the program to the next level. Young has been named the Southern Conference Coach of the Year on three occasions (2010, ‘14 and ‘15), while also having led the Terriers to four 20-win campaigns and four Southern Conference Tournament titles.
It was the 2015 Southern Conference title game where this rivalry started to gain traction once again, and it came in a one-week span at the end of the season. First, in the regular-season Southern Conference finale against the league title favorites, the Paladins played without leading scorer Stephen Croone, and dropped a 62-60 decision to the Terriers.
Of course the 2015 Southern Conference Tournament saw the Terriers begin as the league tournament favorites, while Furman entered as the No. 10 seed. Both would provide an unlikely matchup in the Southern Conference title game, with Wofford winning a classic, 67-64.
Last season, the two played two more classics, as Furman snapped a six-game losing streak with a buzzer-beating tip-in from Croone, as the Paladins took a 63-62 win at Timmons Arena. The Terriers would get their revenge at the Benjo later in the season, topping the Paladins 77-73.
Wofford has a program that has been built on grit and toughness over the years. Young-coached teams are always among the most gritty and tough defensively in mid-major basketball. Furman has also taken on that intense defensive mantra, and that’s how the game played out on Saturday night. Young described those same elements of his program’s following a hard-fought win over Furman.
“I saw more grit tonight,” he said. “Tonight’s game looked like Wofford. It looked like what we have built this thing on – toughness, activity, awareness and good teamwork. I thought we were terrific defensively. We were desperate to play well and to win against a good team and we did that.”
Judging from the proceedings of Saturday night, in what was another war on the Southern Conference hardwood between the Paladins and Terriers, both Palmetto State programs should be strong contenders for the SoCon’s NCAA Tournament bid in March.