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SoCon: UNCG books first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001

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The Spartans did it with defense.

NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at NC-Greensboro Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

In a defensive battle, UNC Greensboro claimed its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2001, with a 62-47 win over East Tennessee State in a Southern Conference title rematch from last year. With the win, the Spartans improve to 27-7 overall and claim the SoCon’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

UNCG’s only other Southern Conference Tournament crown came back in 2001. It will be just the second tournament appearance for the Spartans as a Southern Conference member, and just their third overall as an NCAA Division I program. The only other tournament appearance other than 2018 and ‘01 came in 1996 during UNCG’s short membership in the Big South Conference.

The story all weekend for Wes Miller’s Spartans was defense. They put together a masterpiece over a three-game span saving a near-flawless defensive performance, holding an opponent to the lowest point total in a Southern Conference Tournament Championship game since Davidson held Chattanooga to 40 points in a 42-40 title win way back in 1986.

The 47 points scored by the Bucs were a season low, as was the 30.6 percent shooting percentage. The Spartans held all three of their opponents in the 2018 Southern Conference Tournament below 40 percent from the field, and each of its three foes to less than 60 points.

“I thought we were good defensively in the first half. I thought that was the only reason we were in the game. In the second half, I thought we were a little quicker to the ball. In the second half, we won the boards and I think that was the difference,” Miller said.

The opening half saw a defensive slugfest between the two teams like most expected, with the Spartans and Bucs entering the halftime locker room tied, 25-25.

A key 10-0 run by UNCG after ETSU had taken a 28-27 lead was clutch, highlighted by a pair of Jordy Kuiper triples, and that proved to be enough for Miller’s club with the way it had locked teams down defensively all weekend. Kuiper’s back-to-back three-pointers were followed four made free throws from Isaiah Miller and James Dickey, helping the Spartans lead grow to nine (37-28) with 13:15 left.

Kuiper, a native of the Netherlands, would finish with 13 points and five boards to highlight his championship performance, and helped the Spartans create enough breathing room early in the second half, which allowed the Spartans to hone in defensively, as well as on the backboards.

“When I came in as a freshman, my coach in high school used to make me run sprints if I took a jump shot in a game. Starting from my freshman year, the coaches started working with me on my jumper. They gave me a lot of confidence and that confidence was huge for me,” said Kuiper.

UNCG’s Demetrius Troy would deliver the dagger with 1:37 remaining in the game, hitting a three from the top of the key, extending UNCG’s lead to 14 points (61-47), ensuring UNCG wouldn’t be caught.

The Spartans held the Bucs to an ice cold 30.6 percent shooting clip for the game, including just 18 percent from three-point range. The Spartans also held a 39-31 edge on the boards.

ETSU saw only one player reach double figures, which was senior and graduate transfer Jalan McCloud, while the Spartans held Southern Conference Player of the Year Desonta Bradford to just eight points in his final game for the Bucs.

UNCG’s Francis Alonso, who hit the clutch triple to defeat Wofford, 56-55, in the semifinals, was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, while Troy (13 pts) and center James Dickey III (9 pts, 8 rebs) were named first and second team all-tournament, respectively.

“It was a defensive battle the whole game. I felt like the first team to get to 50 was going to get the chance to win, we just couldn’t get it going. They took us out of our rhythm. We got to the basket and again we couldn’t finish. So that has a lot to do with the way they played, they are very athletic around the basket and we just couldn’t finish. These guys, I am so proud of them. They really battled hard. When you put that much into it, it’s hard to lose like that. They got beat by a good team a really good coached team,” said ETSU head coach Steve Forbes.

The Bucs became the first team since Davidson to play in three-straight championship games since Davidson from 2006-08. UNCG and ETSU played in what was the 12th rematch in championship games in what was the 98th edition of the Southern Conference.