It was a big day on the campus of Wofford College. It was a day of beginnings and endings. The Terrier football team was finishing out its season with a big home game with arch-rival Furman making the short trek from Greenville up I-85 to take in the Terriers in what was the final game of the 2015 season for both teams.
Meanwhile, the Benjamin Johnson Arena--also known as the "Benjo"--was abuzz with excitement as students filed in to see the first home game of the season for the two-time defending Southern Conference Basketball champions.
It was my first trip to Wofford to see a basketball game in a few years, with the last time I can recall being in town for a basketball game at the Benjo being in my time as a Southern Conference intern in 2006. On that day, which also happened to be the final day of the regular-season in the 2005-06 season, I vividly remember a similar atmosphere, and it was a player named Matt Estep who hit a three from the mid-court stripe in a game against Furman at the first half buzzer to bring the crowd to its feet. Though the Terriers hadn't put any of their four banners up in the rafters yet, it was clear that Mike Young had the right pieces in place to build a successful basketball program.
Nearly nine years later, and the only noticeable difference in the program is those four banners. Wofford alumni and students have always shown up, and the one constant throughout Mike Young's 14 years on the sidelines has been the way Wofford has gone about winning. Details and defense have been two ways to define the Mike Young era in Spartanburg--it's been the Wofford way.
"It has been our calling card around here for many years and it's won us a lot of games. Sixty-three points is a Wofford number," said the dean of Southern Conference head coaches Mike Young.
The team in town taking on Wofford in its home opener was another team coming off a successful season, looking to gather momentum off a campaign post 18 wins for the first time 42 years. That program was Maryland Eastern Shore out of the MEAC Conference, and is a team expected to compete for a conference title and NCAA Tournament bid this season. In what turned out to be a 73-63 loss for Bobby Collins' club on Saturday, his Hawks certainly acquitted themselves well, hanging with a team from the Southern Conference expected to once again compete for the Southern Conference title.
"If we're sitting around on Selection Sunday in March and we hear Maryland Eastern Shore's name called out as champions of the MEAC , it won't be a shock at all. They're a good basketball team," Young said.
You don't just replace guys like Lee Skinner and Karl Cochran overnight, as those two players were a part of 80 wins over the previous four seasons, including a pair of SoCon titles. However, the same could have been said about the likes of Noah Dahlman, Cameron Rundles and Jamar Diggs, and yet, the year after that trio graduated commenced the beginning of the careers of both Cochran and Skinner.
Now, the nucleus of Wofford's teams in the post Cochran-Skinner era of success is a trio of seniors and a pair of juniors. Spencer Collins, C.J. Neumann and Justin Gordon are the three seniors, while juniors Eric Garcia and Jaylen Allen will be a collective group that will be looked to for leadership throughout the season.
Each of those guys contributed in some way today, with Neumann providing some of those type players that does things that don't necessarily show up in the stats at the end of the game. One thing that did show up glaringly on the stats sheet Saturday was Neumann's work on the boards, providing a team-high nine boards to go with six points, a pair of assists and a steal.
"He's our glue guy. He is an extremely important piece of this team and of what we are trying to do here, whether it be on the boards, or sacrificing his body on a charge," Young said.
Collins, a native of nearby Easley, S.C., is the player with now the torch of being the leader of this basketball team, especially as a scorer. He is one of the top players in the Southern Conference, and in many articles this season, I have called him one of the top five players in this league. Saturday, he once again proved why he was important. He posted 21 points--just five off his career-high of 26 points which he established last year in Wofford's road win at Mercer, helping the Terriers clinch the regular-season crown.
Collins, who has struggled shooting the basketball prior to today, has a knack for finding ways to score even when things aren't going well for him as a shooter. Today, however, was more of the norm rather than the exception for Collins, as he connnected on 8-of-15 shots from the field, including 2-for-6 from the three-point arc and was 3-of-4 at the line. Collins also showed up on the offensive glass, recording four of his game-high 21 points off offensive rebounds. He finished the contest with four boards.
"It's great to get back here and play after suffering losses on the road to a pair of good basketball teams, but one of the things we weren't pleased with was the way we defended in the first two games. I felt like we dedicated ourselves to defending today. As for me, when I get back here in front of these fans who wait to see us play, it motivates me to play well and I think it motivates us as a team. We definitely feed off their excitement," Collins said.
If you didn't have a roster and you had just sat down to watch the game on Saturday, it would have been hard to decipher which were the veteran leaders and which were the newcomers. It was a disciplined, team effort by Young's club that enabled the Terriers to pull away and get their first win of the season.
Maryland Eastern Shore was a big, athletic team that could shoot and rebound the basketball. In the postgame interview, Young seemed to have been most impressed about how his team was able to rebound the basketball.
One of the things that is noticeable about Wofford basketball is the little things that the team does that separates them from programs that might have more talented players individually or might be more athletic. Wofford uses work ethic as a great equalizer. At least three times in the contest that I can remember there were loose balls on the floor, and each time a Terrier was first to get to the ball.
Those things end up adding up, and at the end of the game, that one extra possession garnered by extra effort put in is many times the difference-maker. Loose balls, defending, rebounds, taking charges and making foul shots are the little things that can make a very big difference in the final score of a basketball game.
Maryland Eastern Shore came out and played well, as they didn't seemed intimidated at all by the success of the Wofford program. If anything, it was the Hawks that made the big shots in the opening half of play, including an impressive 6-for-7 effort from beyond the arc. The Hawks shot the ball at a 47.6% clip in the opening frame, and Wofford, which shot 48.1% in the opening half of play, held just a 35-34 lead at the breeak.
With the game knotted 12-12, it appeared the Terriers might be ready to run away from the Hawks, using an 11-0 run to jump to a 23-12 lead following a Magee three-pointer with 9:27 remaining in the opening half. However, from that point, the Hawks would outscore the Terriers 22-12 the rest of the way to trail by just a point at the break.
The turning point of Saturday's home-opening basketball game, however, came with 6:35 left and with a chance for the Hawks to take the lead. Wofford was clinging to a narrow 54-53 lead when Dominique Elliott was fouled in the act of shooting.
Elliott missed a great opportunity, missing both foul shots, and then the Terriers would get a triple from Magee and following a Hawks missed shot, a layup by Collins to increase the lead back to six again, at 59-53, just two minutes after Elliott was fouled. The closest the Hawks would get the rest of the way was four on two occasions, with the last being on a pair of Ryan Andino free throws, which got the Hawks within four (61-57) with 3:25 left.
While details might define a game for a head coach, it's the razzle-dazzle of the game that captivates the collective fanbase. Ask anyone around Wofford basketball how important a Justin Gordon dunk or block can be, especially and the friendly confines, as he is one of those rare players that can affect games with his athlecism. He had two dunks in Saturday's game, with one dunk shifting the momentum, while the other provided an emphatic exclamation point on Wofford's opening win of the 2015-16 season.
The first of Gordon's rim-rockers came with 9:29 remaining, as his dunk brought the crowd to its feet and gave the Terriers a 51-43 lead.
"Those kind of plays I have been fortunate enough to make during my career, and something that allows us to generate excitement among our fans, and it is one of the parts of my game that I work on," Gordon said.
But Gordon, who came in averaging 15.5 PPG and has double three games in each of his first three outings now, has also improved his mid-range jumper and it has shown in the early going this season, as he looks like one of the most impressive forwards in the league to this point. Already this season, he has scored a career-high of 19 points in the opener, while posting 12 against North Carolina and 10 in the win over UMES on Saturday.
Gordon's final two is probably one of the dunks of his career, as he rose over 6-8 Dominique Elliott's outstretched arm for an emphatic two on a dunk as good as you'll see in any conference, giving the Terriers their largest lead of the afternoon of 12 points, at 69-57, with just under a minute left. The dunk was reminicient of a Colon Largent slam against Furman's Karim Souchu in a game in the early 2000's at the Benjo.
Along with Collins and Gordon, Magee and Garcia also finished in double figures, scoring 12 and 14 points, respectively. Magee continues to be one of the SoCon's most impressive newcomers after connecting on 4-of-9 shots from the field, including 2-for-4 from three-point land. Magee was also a perfect 2-for-2 from the line.
Garcia finished the as the Terriers' second-leading scorer on the day, posting 14 points on 3-of-8 from the field and 2-for-5 from three. He was also a perfect 6-for-6 from the stripe. Garcia's performance from the line was part of an impressive 19-of-24 performance from the charity stripe for the Terriers, which computes to 79.2% for the game.
The Terriers also posted a 45.3% (24-of-53) shooting performance from the field for the game, while UMES finished shooting at a 46.7% clip (21-of-45) from the field. The Terriers out-rebounded the Hawks 36-22 in the contest, posting a 13-1 edge in second chance points.
The major detail that stuck out to me though was the way Wofford defended the perimeter in the second half. After UMES fashioned 24 of their 34 points from the three-point line in the opening half, the Young and Wofford made the necessary adjustments to hold UMES to just 2-for-8 in the second half from three.
Those are the kind of small details that makes Wofford a tough out for anyone, especially those visiting the small, yet loud and very real homecourt atmosphere at the Benjamin Johnson Arena, where the Terriers have won 14 of their past 15 games, and 19 of their past 21 home openers.