In what was possibly the best game of the 2017 Southern Conference Tournament, No. 1 UNC Greensboro topped No. 5 Wofford, 77-73, in Sunday’s first semifinal game at the US Cellular Center.
UNCG will play in its first Southern Conference championship game since 2005, when the Spartans lost to Chattanooga. Tip-off for the title game between the Spartans and East Tennessee State is slated for 7 p.m. on Monday and will air on ESPN2.
Sunday night’s win was the ninth-straight victory for head coach Wes Miller’s Spartans, as he continues to build the prestige level of the program in what is now his sixth season.
“I am really not trying to reflect right now,” he said. “I have told my guys all year that when good things happen, we are not going to reflect, we are going to try to stay in the moment. We are going to have plenty of time to reflect after the year, so we are going to stay in the moment right now.”
Like its opening win in the conference tournament against The Citadel on Saturday, the Spartans found themselves in another dogfight against a gritty Wofford team.
The Spartans went up 21-15 with 11:58 remaining in the opening half behind strong play from Marvin Smith. Diante Baldwin then came through in the clutch in the second half to close out the hard-fought semifinal win.
Smith posted eight of his 13 points in the opening half, while Baldwin finished with 14 of his game-high-tying 22 points in the second half.
However, after the Spartans had seemingly gained momentum in the opening frame, the Terriers caught fire, turning a six-point deficit into a 27-21 lead behind a 12-0 run. The stout Wofford defense held the Spartans scoreless over a 4:48 stretch.
During that 12-0 run, the Terriers got five points from Jaylen Allen on a triple, then a steal and a dunk, bringing the large Terrier contingent to its feet. Allen and Matthew Pegram were two unlikely heroes in the opening frame for the Terriers, as the duo combined to score 13 first-half points, while forward Cameron Jackson added nine more.
The SoCon’s third-leading scorer, Fletcher Magee, was held to just four points in the opening half, as the Spartans did excellent work in limiting his looks from the perimeter.
The trio of Jackson, Allen, and Pegram combined to score 22 of the team’s 39 points in the opening half, as the Spartans took a narrow 39-35 lead to the break.
UNCG showed its strength early in the second half, however, and even threatened to blow the game open. The game turned on a steal and layup from Baldwin with 16:44 left to give the Spartans their first lead at 48-47. It was all part of a 17-8 run from UNCG to open the second half, eventually leading to a 52-47 advantage with 15:29 remaining.
The Spartans led by as many as nine in the second half, and with the game teetering on the brink of disaster, the Terriers started hitting shots.
The Terriers got within a point of the Spartans on two occasions in the second half, the second coming with 1:54 remaining.
Though RJ White scored just eight points and was neutralized for most of the night, his monster dunk with 56 seconds left was a huge momentum play. The Spartans eventually extended that lead to 76-70 win 13 seconds remaining following a pair of Alonso free throws. After a long Magee triple made it 76-73 with 10 seconds left, Baldwin was immediately fouled with and split a pair of charity shots to set the final margin.
Baldwin’s 22 points came on 8-of-16 shooting from the field. He also dished out four assists and had a pair of steals and was one of three Spartans in double figures. Alonso added 17 points, while Smith added 13 points and a team-high tying seven boards.
After scoring just four points in the opening frame, Magee scored 18 second-half points to tie Baldwin for game-high honors with 22. He connected on 6-of-15 shots from the field, including 4-for-10 from three-point land.
The story of the win for the Spartans was once again winning the battle of the boards, out-rebounding Wofford, 36-26, and claiming a sizable 42-26 edge in points in the paint. The Spartans improved to 16-3 when winning the battle on the boards. Both teams shot the ball well, with UNCG connecting on 49.1 percent from the field and Wofford making good on 46.4 percent of its shots.
In the second game, there was much less drama, as No. 3 East Tennessee State advanced to the championship game for the second-straight season, with an 81-72 win over No. 7 Samford.
The only real drama on the evening was how close ETSU guard TJ Cromer would get to Skip Henderson’s single-game tournament scoring record of 55 points. Cromer ended up with a career-high 41 points, becoming the first player to score 40 in a tournament game since Stephen Curry dropped 43 points against Appalachian State in 2009.
His nine triples tied a tournament record, matching Henderson’s nine in his record-setting game.
All told, Cromer connected on 11-of-18 (61.1%) shots from the field, including 9-of-12 (36.4%) from three-point range and 10-of-11 (90.9%) from the charity stripe in the nine-point win.
After leading by as many as 23 in the second half, the Bulldogs closed to within 10 points with 2:21 remaining. Christen Cunningham recorded a team-high 30 points to lead the Bulldogs.
The Bucs will meet UNCG Monday night in the SoCon title game.