Greatness has been defined by the likes of UNC Greensboro (28-6), Furman (25-7) and East Tennessee State (24-9) in Southern Conference basketball this season, however, only one team could claim perfection against everyone in a season unlike any other in the league’s 100-year basketball history, and that team was the 20th ranked Wofford Terriers (29-4).
For a team already 20-0 against its Southern Conference brethren and 2-0 against UNCG with victories by 29 and 30 points over the Spartans already this season, the game was in doubt for most of the 40 minutes of basketball action Monday night.
In fact, the UNCG Spartans led for 33:23 of Monday night’s championship contest, but when the confetti finally fell at the end of the night, the scoreboard read Wofford 70, UNCG 58, in front of what was a raucous sellout crowd of 6,400 at the US Cellular Center.
Despite trailing most of the night, Wofford showed the poise of a champion. It was the perfect way to end one of the best single seasons turned in by one team in Southern Conference history. After all, the league came into the night with a NET ranking of No. 10 out of 32 conferences in college basketball, and Monday night’s win by the Terriers marked its 21st-straight against league competition.
For head coach Mike Young, who is now in his 17th season as the head coach of the Wofford Terriers, he won his fifth league title in the past decade, and improved to 5-0 all-time in SoCon title games. For Young, he admits the journey hasn’t always been easy.
He reflected on just what it meant to win his fifth league crown in just the last 10 years, and if he could have ever imagined the Terriers would be the 20th ranked team in the country and cutting down the nets following a perfect season in a uniquely powerful SoCon. He mentioned how the winning and standard to be elite in the SoCon has created some pressure.
“I’d be less than honest with you if I told you I envisioned all this,” head coach Mike Young said. “It’s been gradual. But it’s all about players. Anyone can coach this bunch.”
“It’s been gradual. We weren’t very good early in my time...2002. I wasn’t very good but got a little bit better. I think back to [Noah] Dahlman and [Tim] Johnson and that 2010 team and that mountain and it hasn’t been all ice cream and rainbows since that time, but this is five of them and it’s five in 10 years and three different teams. The [Karl] Cochran, [Lee] Skinner, C.J. Neuman and [Eric] Garcia era and there’s pressure now. There just is and those guys are coming through in the summer and that’s not comfortable and this was very important to Cameron [Jackson], Fletcher [Magee] and Matthew [Pegram] to do it and now they have.”
For Wofford, the 29th win was also its 20th in a row as the Terriers improved to 29-4 and remained undefeated in the new year. The 29 wins eclipsed the previous wins high watermark for the Wofford basketball program achieved by the 2014-15 outfit, which finished 28-7 following an opening round defeat against Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament. Wofford, who has been projected as high as a No. 7 seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, will find out its NCAA fate at 6 p.m. on Sunday evening when the NCAA pairings are released on CBS. The 20-straight wins is the sixth-longest streak in Southern Conference history.
Monday night’s win for Wofford had a different feel to it, and it was thanks in large part to the effort brought by defending champion UNCG, as Wes Miller’s club was not interested in going quietly into the cool, brisk Asheville night. The 28-win Spartans were a worthy title competitor. While talented All-American guard and Southern Conference Tournament Most Outstanding Player Fletcher Magee has been the catalyst to the Wofford perfection all season, it was Memphis, TN native and junior guard Nathan Hoover, who stepped up and led the charge for the Terriers in a tense championship battle Monday night.
With UNCG leading 55-50 with 5:41 remaining following a jumper by Spartan freshman guard Angelo Allegri, it would be Hoover who took over with his play on both ends to help inject enthusiasm into the Terriers, and helped will them past the Spartans. It was a spurt that we often see in championship games by good teams in college basketball. With the Terriers trailing by five, Hoover scored eight straight points to turn a five-point deficit for Wofford into a three-point lead. He started by connecting on a jumper, and followed with three-pointer from the right elbow and three free throws after being fouled by UNCG star guard Francis Alonso on another perimeter attempt, giving the Terriers a 58-55 advantage with 3:22 left.
Wofford would eventually extend that advantage to 62-55 after four free throws by Magee and Hoover, with the final two charity shots being set up by Hoover’s play on the defensive end as he jumped in front of a Demetrius Troy pass only to be fouled by talented Spartan sophomore guard Isaiah Miller. Hoover’s two free throws put Wofford ahead seven (62-55) with 2:14 left. A layup by Keve Aluma and a pair of made foul shots by Jackson extended Wofford’s lead to its largest all night, at 66-55, with a little over a minute remaining. Hoover’s scoring spurt ignited what would turn out to be a pivotal 16-0 run over 4:33 stretch, which ultimately proved to be the difference in the basketball game.
“I know I have to bring energy every time, that’s my main goal,” junior guard Nathan Hoover said. “I might score 20 or I might score zero, but as long as we get the win that’s all I care about.”
“We’re in a bad place and then Nathan hit a big three for us,” head coach Mike Young said of his junior guard. “He hit eight foul shots. He was just phenomenal and he put us on his shoulders tonight.”
Ignited by the play of Hoover’s 20 second-half points, the Terriers ended the game on a 20-3 run. It was a nearly six-minute masterpiece of basketball by Wofford against a good UNCG team, which showed why Wofford is the class of Southern Conference basketball and legitimately one of the best 20 teams in the country.
Matching Hoover for team-high scoring honors was Magee, who also dropped 20 points, while Jackson added 15 and a team-best seven boards. UNCG got a game-high 21 points from Francis Alonso, while backcourt mate Isaiah Miller added 19 points and a pair of steals.
It will be interesting to see just where the Terriers land Sunday, and if any other SoCon teams join them in the field of 68.