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SoCon Tournament Recap: Samford, Mercer Advance in Thrillers

Two games decided in the final moments capped the first night of SoCon action. Is that a preview for what else we have in store heading into the weekend?

Samford 92, VMI 85 (OT)

In the SoCon Tournament opener, these two teams battled in a thriller as the game went to overtime. They combined for 71 free throws. Samford took 36 and made 31, while VMI took 35 free throws and made 24. That was one of the major differences in this one. Darius Jones-Gibson scored 25 points for the Bulldogs, but the best player for the Bulldogs was Christen Cunningham. He scored 21, making 9 of 11 from the floor. He was brilliant. Freshman Matt Rose knocked down four threes and scored 15 points.

QJ Peterson did it all for VMI. While he made just 4 of 16 from the floor, he made 18 of 21 from the free throw line and scored 27 points. He had three steals, six assists and fourteen rebounds. He missed a shot that would have given the Keydets the lead with just twenty seconds left.

Where does VMI go from here?

Tim Marshall and Phillip Anglade both were seniors and that will leave some empty spots on the Keydets roster. Peterson and Julian Eleby will both be back, though. Dan Earl will be coaching the team in his second season, and the team should improve. They showed flashes down the stretch this year and should continue on that path next year. That being said, I'd be surprised if this team got a bye next year. They don't seem to be heading towards that. But they should expect to get up to about seven conference wins next year.

Mercer 71, The Citadel 69

In the second game of the opening night, Mercer and The Citadel tried to outdo the first game. They did not go to overtime, but this one was tight the whole way as well. Ethan Stair made a layup with five seconds left to give Mercer the lead. Warren Sledge drew a foul with two seconds left, but missed the front end of the one and one to send the Bears to the win.

The Bulldogs did not play their typical style. They slowed it down and did not press as hard as usual. This led to the Bears being a little shocked at first. Then the Bears pulled a stunt of their own and went to a zone defense, something not typical for a Bob Hoffman coached team.

Demetre Rivers was the leading scorer for the Bears. He scored 16 points. However, as is typical for the Bears team, Phillip Leonard did a tremendous job. He scored 11 points, had eleven rebounds and seven assists. Leonard is so important to this club.

Sledge made 4 of 5 free throws tonight. He scored 9 points. He had three rebounds and three assists. He was clearly devastated at the end of the game. The junior will be back next year and he will be back. His face at the end showed all the pain of college basketball in March.

Where does The Citadel go from here?

Derrick Henry and Quinton Marshall are both seniors and key contributors. The Bulldogs under Duggar Baucom should get better as he continues to build the program. They will need Zane Najdawi to continue to improve and for more help along the way. This team will be a wildcard next year in the SoCon race. They lost their final eleven games this year, but they showed signs throughout the year of making small steps under Baucom.

Quick Saturday Preview

Samford vs. Chattanooga (Noon)- Less than seventeen hours after the Bulldogs completed their first round SoCon Tournament victory that went to overtime, Samford must turn around and take on the number one seed Chattanooga. Can Samford win again? Rose, Cunningham and Jones-Gibson will need to have big performances for them to win. The Mocs will need Justin Tuoyo on the inside, but will also need Tre McLean to get the team going. The Mocs have a six game tournament losing streak. They beat Samford twice in close games. Can they make it a third? The biggest edge the Mocs have is the quick turnaround for the Bulldogs. That could play a difference down the stretch of this one.

Western Carolina vs. Wofford (2:30)- The Catamounts desperately need Rhett Harrelson to get going from long range. That is the best way for them to win. Torrion Brummitt can impact the game on the inside. Mike Brown has been excellent as well. The Terriers rely on the long range shooting of Fletcher Magee and Spencer Collins play. In the game played a week ago, Western Carolina won in Cullowhee. Only two Catamounts scored in double figures. Harrelson and Brown each scored twelve. Magee scored 22 of the Terriers 48 points. Collins only collected seven. This is a rematch of last year's semifinal match-up. The Terriers have won four tournaments in five years. There is a good chance for the Catamounts to knock out the two time reigning champs.

Mercer vs. ETSU (6:00)- The Bears have really been struggling. They had lost seven straight before Friday night's close win over The Citadel. Now, they have to take on the second seed, ETSU. ETSU won at Mercer by three this year and in Johnson City by two. The Bears certainly should have the confidence that they can hang with ETSU based on those two games. Now, what happens? ETSU with AJ Merriweather back are a very interesting team. Ge'Lawn Guyn has been tremendous this year. Does Demetre Rivers keep on shooting well for the Bears? What does Phillip Leonard do? Bob Hoffman is such a good coach. Does he have an upset up his sleeve on Saturday night?

UNCG vs. Furman (8:30)- Only Western Carolina has been as hot as the Spartans lately. Diante Baldwin, RJ White and Kayel Locke lead the Spartans upset bid, but Francis Alonso has made a huge difference for this club. The freshman is often the best player on the floor. Can the Spartans beat the Paladins for the second time this year? The Paladins went on a big run last year in the SoCon Tournament to get to the championship game before falling short. Stephen Croone was the Player of the Year this year. He will be relied on heavily. The key to the game may be how well Matt Rafferty is able to play on his injured ankle. The freshman for the Paladins has been so good, but he got injured last Saturday. If he can't go, the Paladins could be in trouble. If he is 100%, the Paladins will find the going much easier.

Gut feeling picks: Chattanooga, Wofford, ETSU, UNCG.