SPARTANBURG, SC -- Wofford and East Tennessee State both put big streaks on the line Saturday night. Inevitably, one would be snapped.
The Terriers had won seven in a row, 12 of their last 13, and were 10-1 in their fancy new home, Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium. The visiting Buccaneers were riding a bit higher, having won 11 straight, 15 of their last 16, and boasting an undefeated record in the Southern Conference.
Between the two sides, one difference was simple: one team had Desonta Bradford and the other didn’t.
Add in ETSU’s smothering defense, a poor shooting night for Wofford, ETSU’s bench, and a dash of Jalan McCloud (16 points and four assists) and the Buccaneers had a winning formula.
Bradford tallied 17 points, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal as ETSU won its 12th straight game, topping Wofford 75-62.
“I thought Wofford really had to work hard to get their shots. Defensively, we were locked in,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes said. “And then when they made their runs, we always answered it. Anytime you go on the road, you got to make baskets when the crowd is really into it.”
With about seven minutes left in the game, Wofford was down, but not out. The Buccaneers were a fine opponent, but no tougher than some teams the Terriers had humbled and overpowered earlier this season, such as North Carolina or Georgia Tech. Mike Young’s side trailed by only five points after Fletcher Magee connected on a three-pointer at the 7:20 mark. This was still a winnable game.
Except ETSU had a player who was determined to put Wofford away.
Bradford immediately answered Magee with a three of his own — and stared down a row of Wofford fans as he silenced them — and then scored seven more points over the next five minutes to help push ETSU’s lead to double-digits. Bradford was fouled on his last made basket, a lay-up at the 2:36 mark. He flexed and let out a howl when the ref signaled for the and-1.
“I tried to stay aggressive,” Bradford said. “Coach put the ball in my hands and I just made plays for us to come out and win.”
Before Saturday’s game, Bradford was the only SoCon player to rank in the top 10 in multiple statistical categories per-game, including points (14, ninth), rebounding (5.6, ninth), assists (3.8, ninth), free throw percentage (73.6 percent, seventh), steals (1.7, fourth), assist-turnover ratio (1.6, seventh), defensive rebounds (5, fourth), and minutes played (31.6, fifth).
“Great players make good coaches, and he’s a very talented young man,” Forbes said.
Forbes said the game plan coming in was to run Wofford’s shooters off the three-point line and limit its offensive rebounds so shooters like Fletcher Magee wouldn’t get a second look. Magee still scored 21 points, but missed 11 shots.
That plan was executed as Wofford shot just 32 percent from behind the arc, grabbed 11 offensive rebounds and scored eight points off second chances. ETSU turned 12 Wofford turnovers into 21 points and grabbed 26 defensive rebounds.
Wofford played this game without Cameron Jackson, it’s 6’8 forward who leads the team in rebounding and is second in scoring. Jackson was still recovering from a concussion he suffered a week ago, and in his absence Young conceded the opening tip to ETSU by trotting out 5-foot-11 Storm Murphy for the jump ball.
“Why not? I knew Steve would get a kick out of that,” Young said. “Storm is at the top of our trap, and I don’t think I’ve had a kid in our program that was going to win the tip against Peter Jurkin, so, screw it.”
It worked out well as Wofford stopped ETSU from scoring on its first possession. Matthew Pegram replaced Jackson in the starting lineup and scored the game’s first two baskets, giving Wofford it’s largest lead of the game. From there, a Bradford-powered ETSU squad grabbed the momentum and never relinquished it.
ETSU sits in first place in the SoCon with a perfect 9-0 record. Right behind them is UNC Greensboro, then Wofford, then Furman.
Each of these teams has a shot to win the SoCon title and go dancing, but the remainder of conference play won’t be a cakewalk.
“It’s not just top heavy,” Forbes said. “You can go to The Citadel and Mercer and lose. Chattanooga is getting better. It’s a really good league top to bottom. Really good players, really good coaches and good venues.”
Wofford and ETSU will meet again on Feb. 23 for what should be a must-see game. And they might see each other again in Asheville in March. Despite its winning streak, ETSU has to be looking over its shoulder with how good Furman, UNC Greensboro and others are playing.
But there’s a lot of time left to decide all of that.
Young, standing at midcourt while talking to reporters Saturday night, paused for a brief moment and glanced behind him at Wofford’s four SoCon championship banners hanging from the rafters.
“We got time. It’s January,” Young said. “They don’t hang any of those things up there in January.”