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SoCon Tournament superlatives, plus news from around the conference

Furman is heading to the Big Dance for the first time since 1980

NCAA Basketball: Furman at N.C. State
The Paladins won both the Southern Conference regular-season and conference tournament titles.
Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023 Southern Conference Tournament was the 103rd edition of college basketball’s oldest postseason tournament, and while the league was down overall this season, it was a SoCon Tournament that once again delivered some thrilling moments. When it was all said and done, produced a rematch in the Southern Conference Tournament championship game.

When the tournament concluded, only one team could lay claim to the 2023 Southern Conference NCAA Tournament berth, and for the eighth time in nine seasons, including the fifth season in a row, it was the No. 1 seed that ended up cutting down the nets in Asheville at the end of the tournament as Furman knocked off the No. 7 seed Chattanooga Mocs, 88-79, in the championship game to go dancing for the first time since 1980.

The 2022-23 season marked the sixth campaign in the last seven in which at least three teams from the league produced three or more 20-game winners: Furman (27-7), Samford (21-11) and UNC Greensboro (20-12). Samford headed to Asheville as the No. 2 seed and tied for the regular-season Southern Conference title with Furman, posting a 15-3 overall league mark. UNCG claimed the No. 3 seed in the second season under head coach Mike Jones. However, both the Spartans and Bulldogs would be upset in a couple of thrilling quarterfinal games Saturday night in what were arguably the most thrilling two games of the tournament.

The Bulldogs would have a compelling case for an NIT invite, but probably cost themselves the opportunity with an underwhelming performance to close the season, with losses to Furman and Chattanooga in the quarterfinals.

There should be more postseason opportunities, however, as teams around the league are already starting to get some looks from other postseason tournaments. The Catamounts recently accepted a bid to the College Basketball Invitational (CBI), marking the first time the Catamounts have taken part in the college basketball postseason since 2016.

If you were looking for dark horses or a Cinderella story in the 2023 Southern Conference Tournament, you could look at No. 4 seed Western Carolina and No. 7 Chattanooga. The Catamounts put the biggest scare into the Paladins in the semifinal round and nearly took down the ‘Dins before Furman found a way to force overtime and pull out a 83-80 win.

The Mocs had Jake Stephens back, and he put on a show all weekend, leading the Mocs all the way back to the championship game despite the Mocs having to open the tournament on Friday. He carried the Mocs to wins over VMI (92-72), No. 2 Samford (85-82) and Wofford (74-62). Chattanooga put up a valiant effort in the championship game against top-seeded Furman but eventually ran out of gas in what was an 88-79 championship game.

Chattanooga was looking to become the first team since Clemson in 1939 to win four games in four days and go on to win the Southern Conference Tournament championship. The Mocs were the fourth team that was a seventh seed or lower to reach the SoCon title game since 2015, joining Furman (No. 10 in 2015), Wofford (No. 7 in 2020) and Mercer (No. 7 in 2021).

With the Mocs’ loss in the championship game, UTC dropped to 63-34 all-time in the Southern Conference Tournament. It was the Mocs’ 20th all-time appearance in the tournament and fall to 12-8 all-time in championship games. It was also UTC’s fourth-straight winning season.

Furman will wait to see who it will face in the NCAA Tournament, hosting an NCAA Selection Show party at Timmons Arena Sunday at 5 p.m. The Paladins’ win over Chattanooga gave the Paladins the season sweep of the Mocs, marking the fifth-straight time that has happened.

Quote of the Tournament: ”We keep a few receipts around here”Furman’s Bob Richey on JP Pegues not being selected to All-Freshman Team or any of the three all-conference teams this season before going on to win the tournament’s Most Outstanding Performer

Best Player: JP Pegues (Furman)

Best Dunk: Demetrius Davis (Chattanooga) vs. VMI to open the game

Best Game: UNCG-Wofford/Furman-Western Carolina

Best Blocked Shot: Jalen Slawson’s block of James Glisson III’s dunk attempt in the second half of Furman’s win over Mercer.

Best Clutch Performance: BJ Mack (Wofford) vs. UNCG

Best Tournament Fans: Furman

Best Moment: Mike Bothwell (Furman) heading near mid-court to the exact spot he was last March when Jean-Baptiste hit the buzzer-beater for UTC, paused and hit his chest a couple of times, as the Paladins claimed the title almost a year to the day later.

Best Hairstyle: Keondre Kennedy (UNCG)

Best Team: Furman

Best Coaching Move: Richey—Switching to a full-court press against Mercer after trailing 32-29 at the half

Best Player not on the championship team: Jake Stephens (Chattanooga)

Best Shooting Performance: Chattanooga went 15-of-28 from 3-point range in the 85-82 win over No. 2 Samford

Worst Shooting Performance: Wofford finished just 3-for-23 from deep in its loss to Chattanooga in the semifinals.

Most Embarrassing Moment: Logan Dye (Samford) to open the game against Chattanooga, stealing the basketball and then appearing to slip as he went in for an uncontested dunk/layup.

Best Career Milestone: Sean Conway (VMI) scored his 1,000th point as a VMI Keydet in the 92-72 loss to Chattanooga to open the tournament.

Best Sportsmanship Moment: Jake Stephens (Furman) going over to make sure Mike Bothwell was OK following a flagrant foul committed by Stephens’ teammate Demetrius Davis, as Bothwell drove to the basket.

Thank You Jake, Mike and Jalen: There were some great stories in this season’s Southern Conference Tournament.

One of the stories was Jake Stephens’ return to the lineup after missing the final month-and-a-half of the season due to a broken thumb.

That was opposite the stories of Furman’s Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson, who had to endure the heartbreak of last March and losing on Jean-Baptiste’s 36-foot buzzer-beater. With the option to turn pro or transfer, Slawson and Bothwell decided to Furman for nothing more than a chance to play on Monday night in Asheville again and become legendary in the lore of the Furman basketball annals.

Stephens similarly displayed a sense of loyalty as he followed his coach, Dan Earl, from VMI to Chattanooga. He could have also transferred anywhere but chose to stay with his coach to the Scenic City for one last chance at a title in the SoCon.

Unfortunately, an injury against Furman in the regular-season put those hopes on a temporary hold before he returned for the tournament. He led the Mocs all the way to the title in what was a valiant effort. While that Stephens’ story came to an end, he has success and a lot of money waiting for him in pro hoops in the future. Not bad for a guy that literally had no real Division I offers other than VMI coming out of high school.

While Stephens’ collegiate career came to an end on the first Monday in March in Asheville, both Bothwell and Slawson extended their careers into the NCAA Tournament. The pressure is off now for those two. Furman will be a dangerous team in March Madness.

Showing up in the NCAA Tournament like...Furman is showing up in the Big Dance is much like Johnny Lawrence in the beginning of the Netflix hit series Cobra Kai because the world has changed plenty since the Paladins last danced in 1980.

Richey has Furman’s Firebird revving and ready to go for the Tournament, with REO Speedwagon and some Peter Cetera in the cassette deck. The Paladins look to do some damage in the NCAA Tournament, as they try to get the SoCon a win in the NCAA Tourney for the first time since Wofford knocked off Seton Hall in 2019 and just the second time since Davidson made that impressive run to the Elite Eight in 2008.

All-Tournament Teams and Individual Awards

First team

Mike Bothwell, Furman

JP Pegues, Furman (MOP)

Jalen Slawson, Furman

Jake Stephens, Chattanooga

Vonterius Woolbright, Western Carolina

Second team

Jermaine Marshall, Samford

Jamal Johnson, Chattanooga

Tyzhaun Claude, Western Carolina

B.J. Mack, Wofford

Jackson Paveletzke, Wofford

Pinnacle Award (highest GPA on championship-winning team)

Blake Harris, Furman

2023 Ingles Southern Conference Men’s Basketball Championship

Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville, Asheville, N.C.

Friday, March 3 (ESPN+)

Game 1 – (8) Mercer 66, (9) The Citadel 41

Game 2 – (7) Chattanooga 92, (10) VMI 72

Saturday, March 4 (ESPN+/Nexstar)

Game 3 – (1) Furman 73, (8) Mercer 58

Game 4 – (4) Western Carolina 69, (5) ETSU 57

Game 5 – (7) Chattanooga 85, (2) Samford 82

Game 6 – (6) Wofford 67, (3) UNCG 66

Sunday, March 5 (ESPNU/ESPNEWS)

Game 7 – (1) Furman 83, (4) Western Carolina 80

Game 8 – (7) Chattanooga 74, (6) Wofford 62

Monday, March 6 (ESPN)

(1) Furman 88, (7) Chattanooga 79

Who wins the SoCon Tournament in 2024?

Western Carolina

You read that right, and of course, that’s assuming the Catamounts can keep their current collection of talent together. If Justin Gray keeps his core group of talented players return such as Tre Jackson, Vonterius Woolbright, Russell Jones Jr. and Tyzhaun Claude, watch out for the Catamounts in Asheville in 2024. Samford and Furman figure to be the most likely to battle the Catamounts.

Oliver out at East Tennessee State:

In some late breaking news Friday, it was announced that Desmond Oliver has been relieved of his duties as the head coach at East Tennessee State after just two seasons at the helm. The Bucs were 27-39 overall and 15-21 in Southern Conference play with him.

The Bucs also had a Freedom Hall record eight-game losing streak, which occurred this season. They finished with just a 15-15 record at home the past two seasons after the Bucs had boasted one of the top home venues in all of mid-major basketball when Steve Forbes left for Wake Forest three years ago.

Since Forbes took the Wake Forest job, the Bucs have posted a combined 40-51 record over the past three seasons (two under Oliver and one with Jason Shay). Forbes went 130-43 and led the Bucs to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances in 2017 and 2020 during his five seasons at the helm in Johnson City.