If you haven’t yet figured out the SoCon race is going to be a war this season, you have been served fair warning. The top four teams in the SoCon — Furman, UNC Greensboro, Wofford and East Tennessee State — are going at it against each other each night. Home court, so far, has been a fortress save for UNCG’s hiccup against Wofford Thursday night, making Saturday’s game on the home floor against the Paladins somewhat of a must-win, or at least in the case of the regular-season title chase.
Sophomore guard Isaiah Miller would make sure the Spartans didn’t fall too far behind in the standings, however, following a 29-point loss on the home floor last time out, which snapped UNCG’s 17-game home winning streak.
Against Furman, Miller scored a career-high 25 points, as UNC Greensboro held off the Paladins, and snapped a four-game losing streak in the series in the process.
Miller, a sophomore guard from Covington, GA, was sensational throughout the bounce back game, finishing the contest going 10-for-19 from the field, including 4-for-8 from three-point land. In addition, Miller also added five rebounds, three assists and four steals.
Miller was one of four Spartans in double figures in the contest, joined by Francis Alonso (16 points), Eric Hamilton (15 points), and Demetrius Troy (10 points).
For their part, the Paladins were led by another outstanding night from SoCon Player of the Year candidate Matt Rafferty, as the senior forward posted 22 points, 10 boards, dished out five assists and recorded two steals to lead the Paladins. He was one of three Paladins in double figures in the contest.
“They’re a tremendous offensive team and well they’re a tremendous team,“ said UNCG head coach Wes Miller. “On the offensive end they’re just a tremendous team and there’s a reason they were in the Top 25 just two weeks ago. If you aren’t active defensively with your hands and with your play, you can’t guard them even if you’re in the right position,” Miller added.
The truth was Miller could have even been talking about his own team, which shot the ball at a 51.6 percent clip (32-of-62), showing some of that championship form on both ends of the floor to gut out a tough league victory.
The Spartans were able to affect the game with their defense, and for the first time since early in the season, James Dickey looked like he was back to his old form prior to his foot injury. His four blocks were the most in a single game for the reigning SoCon Defensive Player of the Year since the season opener against North Carolina A&T, when he swatted away seven shots.
For head coach Bob Richey and Furman, it’s back to the drawing board for his young team, which will now have a week off to prepare for a big game at Wofford next Saturday.
With a season-high 21 turnovers, which is uncharacteristic for the normally composed Paladins, it will give something for head coach Bob Richey to prepare for and work on during the week ahead prior to squaring off with their I-85 rival.
It’s something that Richey admits UNCG was able to do with great effectiveness, which was put Furman in uncomfortable situations with forcing the tempo.
That’s the thing about the SoCon. Teams find unique ways to push other teams’ buttons. Mercer does it different than The Citadel and UNCG does it different than the previous two, with a 1-2-2 press reminiscent of some of those Murry Bartow ETSU clubs in the mid-2000s.
“It’s there pressure and they tried to speed us up and when people pressure you they are trying to get you to play faster than you want to play,” Richey said.
“Unfortunately today they had success doing that and so we’ve got to be better there and that’s one of our Achilles heels and going back to some of these guys that haven’t been in these situations before and five underclassmen of our eight that are playing out there and that’s one of those deals where you’ve got to learn to just stay composed. The pressure is only pressure if you let it pressure you,” Richey added.
UNCG returns to action Thursday night with a trip to face Western Carolina at the Ramsey Center, with tip-off slated for 1 p.m. Furman will take on league unbeaten Wofford at the Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium next Saturday in Spartanburg. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.