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SoCon Semifinal recap: UNCG and ETSU move on to the championship round

Defensive showdowns set up a championship game between UNC Greensboro and East Tennessee State

Serbian-born Mladen Armus recorded double-double in ETSU’s semifinal win over Furman
John Hooper

ASHEVILLE — No. 1 seed UNC Greensboro and No. 2 seed East Tennessee State have relied on their defenses. Fittingly, their stout defensive efforts led both the Bucs and Spartans into a SoCon title rematch Monday night at the US Cellular Center.

The Spartans and Bucs ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the SoCon, respectively, in most defensive categories all season. UNCG ranked No. 6 nationally in scoring defense (63.1 PPG), and it showed tonight, holding the Terriers to their second-lowest total of the season for points (55).

“We talked about building a defensive mentality from day one and we took some steps and grew a bit as a team defensively tonight,” UNCG head coach Wes Miler said. “Our effort and energy on defense is what kept us in game when shots weren’t falling or we made a mistake.”

For the Bucs, it’s the third-straight trip to the title game in the Steve Forbes tenure. The Bucs are 1-1 in title games under Forbes, losing 73-67 to Chattanooga in 2016, while defeating UNCG 79-74 in that epic final a year ago.

The game came down to Alonso doing what he has done to Wofford time and time again: hitting clutch shots. The junior from Malaga, Spain had ice water in his veins. Although he finished 5-for-15 from the field — including 3-for-10 from three-point range — and 13 points, his third triple of the night with 20 seconds left that proved to be Wofford’s dagger, and eventually proved the game-winner.

“All I have to say is it was a really tough game. But I have to say my teammates were the ones that gave me confidence at all times,” said junior guard Francis Alonso. “Even though I wasn’t shooting the ball well, when you have great teammates that have your back, you feel at the end of a possession, shots are going to go in. I knew I was feeling good. I’ve been working a lot this summer and I’m really happy we pulled it off.”

The Spartans had to hold off pesky guards Fletcher Magee and Storm Murphy to find their way back to Monday night’s title, surviving three shots — two from Magee — on the final possession.

Trailing 56-55 following a Mike Young timeout with 13 ticks remaining, the Terriers set up a play off a hand-off from Cameron Jackson in the corner, and Fletcher’s shot from the right corner was short, but he followed his own shot, tossing up a second shot from about 15 which was long.

That was when Murphy ran down the ball, and after pump-faking a UNCG defender, let a shot go from the right elbow that was short and clanged off front iron as the buzzer sounded.

The loss dropped Wofford to a 21-12 record, which will likely be good enough to earn a spot in one of the lesser postseason tournaments, but their status right now is uncertain. But Young’s Terriers will likely enter the 2018-19 season as one of the SoCon’s favorites, with just one senior on its roster.

Meanwhile, the Bucs held Furman to season-lows in most every offensive category, as the Bucs’ defense ground out a 63-52 win in the evening’s second semifinal.

Furman found themselves with the a season-low 19 first-half points, trailing 32-19 at the break.

The Paladins were held to a meager 4-for-26 (15.4%) shooting from three-point range. The Bucs were locked in defensively, posting a 15-4 advantage on points off 13 turnovers.

The Bucs’ lead was as high as 23 points midway through the half before Furman started to trim the lead.

Southern Conference Player of the Year Desonta Bradford (20 pts), Freshman of the Year Bo Hodges (6 pts, 4 asts) and Devontavius Payne (12 pts) were at the forefront of the ETSU successful semifinal. Among the the more exciting moments in the contest were a pair of highlight were a pair of highlight-reel dunks from Bradford and David Burrell. After getting a technical foul well for a windmill slam well after the whistle had been blown, Burrell redeemed himself by catching a deflected Hodge’s pass by Furman’s Clay Mounce, and hanging in the air for the dunk. The Burrell acrobatic act was a microcosm of the type of evening it was for Richey’s Paladins, who shot it at better than 58% in last night’s 97-73 win over Western Carolina.

The Bucs held Furman to 31.7 FG% — the Paladins’ worst mark since Dec. 22, 2015.

For Furman it was the end of an era for four seniors that have helped rebuild a tradition long-lost in Greenville, but it was Daniel Fowler, Devin Sibley, John Davis III and Geoff Beans that helped re-establish a foundation that had eroded. In the three-seasons, prior to the quartet’s arrival, the Paladins had just 34 combined wins.

Jordan Lyons was Furman’s lone player in double figures, scoring 17 points. The sophomore will now be one of those asked to carry the baton in the future as head coach Bob Richey tries to continue to build a winning culture in Greenville.

“These four seniors we have are the best role models and leaders, on and off the court, that I could have for my first two years here at Furman,” Lyons said. “They all bought in the day they got here and this class is legendary. No one can ever take away what they’ve done and how they’ve changed this program. What they’ve done for me is something I can use to keep the standard at where it needs to be for my last two years. I’m forever thankful for them. Basketball is fun, but it’s only temporary. The relationships that I’ve built with these four will last a lifetime.”

The SoCon title game tips off at 9 p.m, and will be nationally televised on ESPN2.