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SoCon Tournament 2021 Recap: Greensboro strikes gold

A look back at the 101st SoCon Tournament and the stories that shaped the four days of basketball

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 06 UNC Greensboro at Wofford Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For the second time in four years, the UNC Greensboro Spartans (21-8) reigned supreme atop the Southern Conference.

Head coach Wes Miller was a topic of conversation during the off-season, as he was a finalist for the Wake Forest job — a job eventually taken by East Tennessee State’s Steve Forbes — but now Miller sits atop the Southern Conference, and what an outstanding job he has done at building the brand and UNCG basketball program into a mid-major power. In his 11th year at the helm of the program, he’s posted an impressive 184-133 record heading into the NCAA Tournament.

For Miller, the process hasn’t always come as easy as it has the past six seasons — a place where most Spartan fans will point to as their great reset as a basketball program. Since the start of that 2015-16 season, UNCG has posted 140 wins, which is an average of 23.3 wins per season if you are scoring at home.

It’s been a remarkable run for the Spartans, who have appeared in four of the past five SoCon title games. The Spartans have also won three regular-season titles, claiming a share of the crown in 2016-17, while winning it outright in the 2017-18 and 2020-21 campaigns.

Wes Miller was rightfully emotional at the end of the tournament run when he had a chance to consider what his Spartans had done following the 69-61 win over Mercer.

“This is very emotional,” Miller said. “The pandemic has been challenging for people all over the world, and these kids went through so much to get here. To see them accomplish this and reach their goal, it’s an awesome feeling.”

In that game, star guard Isaiah Miller showed out, posting 25 points, 12 rebounds and dishing out six assists to garner the tournament’s most outstanding player honor.

Miller also had a number of highlight-reel throw-downs, with one of those being downright nasty in the semifinal against East Tennessee State, as he caught the ball outside the cylinder to one-hand tomahawk home a lob from Keyshaun Langley on a breakaway.

Miller, who is the SoCon’s best NBA prospect in 2020-21, will now get to display his high-flying act in the NCAA Tournament.

Military Appreciation Day

Coming into the 2020-21 season, two military colleges in the Southern Conference held long NCAA Tournament droughts. In fact, a long-running joke around the Southern Conference basketball tournament has been opening day, which some with a grin used to refer to as “Military Appreciation Day”…M.A.D….Enough to make any former player or graduate of those fine institutions, well, mad.

Routinely, it’s been a fight for both The Citadel Bulldogs and the VMI Keydets, who sport a combined conference tournament record of 40-124, with three NCAA Tournament berths—all three claimed by the Keydets.

But in 2020-21, everything has turned on its head, and so, the two military programs are the ones with the biggest of grins. The Bulldogs did clinch the program’s first winning season since the 2008-09 campaign.

With their quarterfinal loss to UNCG, the Bulldogs finished out a strong 13-12. Give a tip of the cap to head coach Duggar Baucom, who completely transformed a program that finished the 2019-20 season with 19 straight losses, including going winless in SoCon play, and had just seven healthy players.

But with a healthy Hayden Brown, the Bulldogs proved to be more than a formidable foe for the entire league, and even got home wins over East Tennessee State, Chattanooga and Wofford in league play. VMI added wins over UNCG and Furman, which shows how far these two programs have come in such a short time.

7 seed streakers

Last season, it was the seventh-seeded Wofford Terriers making the run to the finals before losing to East Tennessee State. This season, it was the Greg-Gary-led Mercer Bears. The Bears got big tournaments from both point guard Neftali Alvarez and Leon Ayers III, who both finished out the tournament with first-team All-Tournament team honors.

In maybe the game of the tournament, Mercer was able to hold off a hard-charging Wofford team to get a 62-61 semifinal win over the Terriers. Gary’s club nearly blew a 17-point (40-23) halftime lead, as the Terriers came storming back — literally — as Storm Murphy and company surged back to take a 59-57 lead in the second half with just four minutes remaining.

To its credit, Mercer, which lost both regular-season meetings to the Terriers, saw Alvarez step up and make one of the best plays of the tournament for the Bears, as he drove down the left side of the lane, converted a layup and was fouled by Wofford’s BJ Mack. Alvarez converted the three-point play the old-fashioned way with 55 seconds remaining, which ultimately proved to be the winning points for the Bears, 62-61.

In the third game of the tournament, Mercer went up another upstart team, in the VMI Keydets, in what was a great defensive performance from the perimeter, as the Bears were able to hold the Keydets to just 4-of-25 shooting from three-point range.

The Bears had their chances in the tournament championship game, and trailed by just one in the at the break and actually held a 51-50 lead with just over seven minutes to play. However, that’s where the Spartans put the clamps down on the defensive end en route to the 69-61 win.

‘Dins disappointed again

The Paladins have been an outstanding regular season team under head coach Bob Richey. However, for a second straight season, the Paladins were knocked off in their first game in Asheville, as VMI rebounded from a 15-point second half deficit with just under nine minutes remaining to force overtime, with the game tied, 80-80.

Despite 30 points from Noah Gurley, the Paladins had no answers for Greg Parham in the second half and overtime, as he spearheaded head coach Dan Earl’s attack, scoring 17 of his 21 points in the second half and overtime to help lead the Keydets to the win. Bob Richey continues to do a great job in Greenville, but the trophy case is starting to gather a small layer of dust.