ASHEVILLE — The 100th Southern Conference Tournament saw top-seeded East Tennessee State complete a school and conference-record 30 wins, culminating with the Bucs cut down the nets after a 72-58 win over Wofford.
The Bucs stingy defense came through once again at tournament time. After holding 16 of 18 of its foes in league play to less than 70 points, the Bucs surrendered an average of just 63.3 PPG in three tournament games. All told, the Bucs held 16 of 19 SoCon opponents to less than 70 points in the regular-season and tournament.
Led by 24 points from tournament Most Outstanding Player Isaiah Tisdale, the Bucs cruised to double-digit wins over No. 9 VMI, No. 5 Western Carolina and No. 7 Wofford to claim its eighth Southern Conference title and punch its 11th ticket to the NCAA Tournament. The Bucs are headed back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2017, and for the second time under fifth-year head coach Steve Forbes. It also marked the fourth trip to the SoCon championship game in five seasons under Forbes.
The 11th tournament appearance matches league leader Chattanooga, who also has 11 NCAA Tournament appearances. ETSU’s other three appearances in the NCAA Tournament came from winning the Atlantic Sun Tournament in 2009 and 2010, and winning the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament in 1968.
In addition to Tisdale’s selection as Most Outstanding Player, ETSU populated the all-tournament team. The senior guard was joined by teammates Tray Boyd III (1st Team), and Daivien Williamson (1st Team) on the all-tournament team. Patrick Good claimed the Pinnacle Award, which is given to the player with the highest GPA on the winning team.
With its 30th win in the tournament title game, Forbes improved his overall coaching mark to 130-43 in his career at ETSU. The Bucs will head into the NCAA Tournament with a 12-game winning streak.
Wofford nearly completed the unthinkable
Despite being the defending champions, first-year head coach Jay McAuley’s Wofford Terriers didn’t look the part of a Cinderella.
The Terriers came into the tournament riding a seven-game losing skid, but claimed wins over The Citadel, Furman and Chattanooga to reach the championship.
The Terriers were looking to become the first team to win four games in four days in the Southern Conference Tournament since Clemson did so in 1939.
In the first three games, the Terriers connected on 36-of-73 from three (49.3%) before being held to just 6-for-25 (24.0%) from downtown in the championship game against ETSU.
A core group of juniors — Storm Murphy, Chevez Goodwin and Tray Hollowell — were all key in the run, however, senior Trevor Stumpe and freshman Messiah Jones also stepped up in big moments for the Terriers to help drive them back into the title game. The Terriers simply ran out of gas in the end.
Disappointments from three high seeds
Both No. 2 Furman and No. 3 UNC Greensboro had high hopes of cutting down the nets in Asheville, but neither were able to get past Saturday.
The Paladins had been riding some momentum coming into the tournament, having won 10 of 11 games coming in, and were the sentimental favorites since they have not been to the NCAA Tournament in 40 years.
However, arch-rival Wofford kept its streak alive of not having been beaten by Furman twice in a season since 2005-06 with a 77-68 win, which ended the Paladins run a lot earlier than expected. With a NET in the mid-70s, the Paladins will likely play in the NIT for a second consecutive year.
Those assurances of an NIT seem a little more for No. 3 UNC Greensboro, who closed the season with three-straight losses, including back-to-back losses to Chattanooga.
It was the final games — in the Southern Conference at least — for UNCG’s all-time winningest senior class, as Kyrin Galloway, James Dickey and Malik Massey all finished out stellar SoCon careers for the Spartans.
The Spartans led 24-10 in the opening half of the game, but couldn’t control Chattanooga’s Ramon Vila in the second half, as he scored 15 of his 22 and grabbed seven of his 12 boards in the latter frame alone.
Finally, it’s less of disappointment that No. 4 Mercer fell to No. 5 Western Carolina, as first-year head coach Greg Gary’s club vastly overachieved all season. We’ll miss seeing more of Ethan Stair and Djordje Dimitrijevic, who were outstanding all season for the Bears. Gary has Mercer headed in the right direction.
Mid-Major Madness Tournament Superlatives
Best Hairstyle: Justin Brown of Chattanooga. I’ll let you google it.
Best Fans: ETSU’s, which came in droves to the Harrah’s Cherokee Center
Best Game: Chattanooga vs. Wofford. Storm Murphy hit game-winner for Wofford with 3.1 seconds left to deliver a 72-70 win for the Terriers.
Best Moment: Carlos Dotson going over to give ETSU head coach Steve Forbes a hug after fouling out. Dotson is pure class. We’ll miss him in the SoCon, but hopefully we’ll see him in some postseason tournament.
Best Quote: Jordan Lyons at the 5:25 mark:
Best Dunk: ETSU’s Bo Hodges over Wofford’s Chevez Goodwin in the championship game:
Best Shooting : VMI connected on a Southern Conference Tournament record 18 triples in the tournament-opening win over Samford.
Best Individual Performance: Isaiah Tisdale’s 24-point performance in the championship vs. Wofford. VMI center Jake Stephens, who had a career-high 24 points and went 6-for-7 from three-point range in the Keydets win over Samford is also worthy of mention.
Player that Deserved a Better Fate: Chattanooga’s Ramon Vila was simply outstanding over the course of the weekend for the Mocs. He helped Chattanooga to one of the biggest upsets of the weekend, with 22 points and 12 rebounds in a 78-68 win over No. 3 seed UNC Greensboro and followed that up with a 19-point, seven-rebound performance vs. Wofford in a heartbreaking 72-70 loss.
Most Likely to Win a Future Tournament MOP: Furman guard Mike Bothwell didn't disappoint over the latter half of the season for the Paladins, and they could be the favorites in 2020-21 with four starters back.
Coach that had his seat get a little warmer: Probably Samford’s Scott Padgett. Every other coach is probably safe.
Most Undervalued Player of the Weekend: ETSU’s graduate transfer forward Joe Hugley provided energy plays time after time throughout the weekend for the Bucs.
Best Senior Moment: Wofford’s Trevor Stumpe going off in the second half against Furman, scoring 14 of his 18 points with most of those coming during a key 16-2 run that helped Wofford take control of the game.
Most Likely to cut down the nets in 2021: Furman
Bold NCAA Tournament Prediction: ETSU makes the Sweet Sixteen as a No. 7 seed.