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Wofford head coach Jay McAuley reflects on an up and down debut season

McAuley weathered a seven-game losing streak entering the Southern Conference Tournament only to lead Wofford to the brink of a second straight NCAA Tournament trip.

Wofford head coach Jay McAuley
Mark Olencki, Wofford College

It seems that if Wofford coach Jay McAuley wasn’t in basketball, he could have enjoyed a fine career as a professor of crisis management.

An old adage thrown around at Wofford basketball from time-to-time, is “The Wofford Way” and that's exactly what the Terriers would exhibit during McAuley’s first season as head coach.

When McAuley took over the job in April of last year following Mike Young’s departure for Virginia Tech, McAuley knew he’d be losing Cameron Jackson and college basketball’s all-time three-point leader Fletcher Magee to graduation.

What he didn’t anticipate was Keve Aluma announcing he would join Young at Virginia Tech via the transfer portal just days after McAuley took the head coaching position.

“I think anyone that saw us play last year kinda saw that we had to piece things together,” he said, talking about how his team dealt with problems on and off the court.

Another surprise greeted McAuley on the opening night of the season against Erskine, as he welcomed his second daughter into the world on the very same night he made his Division I collegiate basketball coaching debut. The Terriers breezed to an 86-63 win over its Division II foe.

One win down and a second baby girl delivered, and it was seemingly a harbinger of how McAuley would be able to balance life and basketball in his rookie season in Spartanburg.

The first adversity for the Terriers came in the form of the William & Mary Tribe. The Tribe’s size and the Terrier’s missed defensive assignments were two of the main ingredients in an 80-79 home loss.

The early loss to the Tribe revealed what some of the early deficiencies were for the Terriers, which were mostly inside the paint, as the bigger Tribe held a significant advantage on the glass (28-21). The second was that Wofford had some ways to go defensively, as the Tribe connected on 56.4% of their shots from the field, including going 46.2% (12-of-26) from downtown.

The defense, thankfully for McAuley, would get a little better as non-conference play progressed. The loss to the Tribe would be part of a four-game losing streak for the Terriers, which featured road losses at Butler (L, 61-80), Missouri (L, 56-75) and at South Florida (55-69) before they finally broke the streak with a win over Maryland Eastern-Shore (W, 67-42).

The non-conference also featured another win over North Carolina, giving McAuley a marquee win in Carmichael Arena in the first game played there since 1986.

The win over the Tar Heels came at a point in the season when McAuley’s Terriers started to play some of their best basketball. What the Terriers got was somewhat of an unlikely hero in Trevor Stumpe, who posted 19 points to help lead Wofford to the win.

The Terriers actually closed out conference play in strong fashion, winning four out of their final five non-conference games, with the lone loss coming at No. 4 Duke (L, 57-86).

The conference office did McAuley no favors in scheduling, as his first game as a head coach in conference play came against league favorite East Tennessee State. The defensive slugfest would be a preview of the championship game, and was a revelation of how much the Terriers had improved defensively, losing 49-48 on the road.

The highlight of league play came with a double-overtime win over UNC Greensboro (W, 98-92), and a big win over arch-rival Furman (66-52) in the middle of the month. The win over the Paladins came as a part of a nationally-televised game on ESPNU

Then came the adversity for McAuley to weather.

It came in what can best be described as a tumultuous February. The Terriers entered the SoCon Tournament in Asheville on a seven-game losing streak to end the regular season, and fan morale was at a new low. The Terriers were forced into the opening round of the Southern Conference Tournament for the first time since 2009.

Those seven losses to end the season came in excruciatingly close fashion, as the young Terriers dropped the seven contests by a combined 38 points during that losing streak to end the regular-season.

But Wofford made easy work of The Citadel to open the tournament and advanced to play a top-100 Furman team, which came in as the No. 2 seed and one of the favorites to take the tournament.

Senior veteran Trevor Stumpe led the charge as he nearly single-handedly willed the Terriers to the win in the second half. Though he didn’t play much in 2018-19 due to injury, his presence and experience was paramount in helping McAuley’s Terriers make the run they did in March.

Stumpe got going in the second half against Furman, scoring 14 of his 18 points with most coming during a key 16-2 run that helped Wofford take control of the game.

In the paint, it was Chevez Goodwin doing work seemingly at will against Furman’s big men, who were saddled with foul trouble for much of the night. All Goodwin did was take the game to the Paladins, posting 19 points and nine boards in the nine-point victory for the Terriers.

It was the first major upset of the 2020 Southern Conference Tournament, and it was one that only seemed to energize McAuley’s Terriers moving forward.

Playing on sheer adrenaline the following night against Chattanooga, the Terriers got a free throw line jumper from Storm Murphy with 3.6 seconds remaining to hold on for a 72-70 win and get back to the championship game.

Though the run came to an end with a 72-58 loss to regular-season champion and top-seeded ETSU, year one for McAuley in Spartanburg turned out to be a big success.

The Terriers have plenty of talent returning this year to make up for a departing Goodwin, who transferred to USC. They must also replace leading scorer Nathan Hoover, who averaged 14.7 PPG and had a team-high 83 three-pointers last season.

Two of the guys paramount to the success in 2020-21 are two of the same guys that were vital in the tournament run for the Terriers — rising sophomore forward Messiah Jones and Murphy.

“He’s the prototypical SoCon player that’s a mismatch and isn’t scared to do the dirty work,” McAuley said of Jones.

Against the Mocs, Jones had 11 points and four boards in 11 minutes, while in the championship game against the Bucs, Jones established a career-high 19 points and five rebounds, and went 9-of-11 from the field.

Other wings will be expected to step up, too, as guys like Isaiah Bigelow and Zion Richardson will be relied upon to provide even more versatility alongside Jones, as both are athletic and strong enough to play down low in the paint, but also solid perimeter threats making them a tough guard for opponents.

Murphy has a chance to finish off his career in style, and Wofford has had a tradition of great point guards, with the likes of Brad Loesing (2008-11), Eric Garcia (2013-16) and Drew Gibson (2004-07) to name just a few.

“Murphy is the consummate Wofford player that on and off the court he leads, he does the right things, he works his tail off and he’s a killer when you need him to be a killer,” McAuley said.

Even when the Terriers struggled down the stretch during the close to the regular-season, losing seven-straight—all by close margins—the moment never got too big for McAuley in his first year as the Wofford head basketball coach. Look for that trend started by Young to become even more a part of the “Wofford Way” under McAuley.