March is tournament time. Last week, 10 teams and their fan bases invaded the town of Asheville, N.C., for the Southern Conference Tournament. Each team had one goal in mind: to reach the NCAA tournament. Win and you are in the “big dance.” The regular season held no water in what a team can do in March.
The first day of match ups included the bottom four in the regular season standings, as they looked to play their way into the tournament and face the top two seeds the next day.
The first game matched UNCG and Samford, with both teams coming in with identical records in conference play at 6-12. The two teams battled back and forth all game long. In the end, UNCG prevailed with a 81-76 win, with Diante Baldwin leading with a career high of 19 points. This set up a match up with one seeded Wofford in the second round.
The other day-one match up saw The Citadel take on Furman. Furman came into the tournament with the worst record overall with just 11 wins but proved that they could win in the tournament in the form of a blowout 73-56. Furman’s win set them up to play the second seeded Chattanooga Mocs.
Day two offered up four games, and they delivered. With the first round off, Wofford was well rested, and it showed in a 70-52 victory over UNCG as they punched their ticket to the semifinals with ease.
The game that offered the most excitement was the overtime thriller between Western Carolina and ETSU. ETSU charged back in the final minute to force overtime, but it was the Catamounts who would eventually close out the game with a victory 67-61.
Furman came into the game against Chattanooga as heavy underdogs. They took the lead late in the game with 5:40 remaining and never let go of it, winning 69-67. Furman pulled the upset despite Ronrico White hitting three straight three-pointers to end the game for the Mocs, as Furman’s Geoff Beans answered at the free throw line.
The last matchup of day two pitted Mercer against VMI. Mercer cruised to an easy victory in this game but lost one of their stars Darious Moten to a broken elbow. Even with a starter out, it turned out to be a bittersweet 89-61 victory for the Bears.
In the semifinals, Wofford held off a late charge by Western Carolina and won its matchup 73-61, as the team beat its second straight tournament opponent by double digits. Spencer Collins 17 points paced the Terriers in the win.
With a chance to meet Wofford in the championship game, Mercer and Furman squared off in a back and forth type of game. Mercer jumped out early behind freshman Stephon Jelks, who was starting in place of the injured senior, but Jelks ended up hurting his ankle toward the end of the first half. The shorthanded Bears lost the lead late in the game and were not able to regain it despite Jelks trying to play through his injury. Their championship run ended at the hands of Furman 52-49, as Ike Nwamu’s three-pointer at the buzzer rimmed out.
The final stage was set with one team who most predicted would be there while the other had not won consecutive games since late January. The Cinderella story of the SoCon finally struck midnight when Wofford hit two late free throws to put them up 67-64, as Furman’s last second three-pointer fell just short of the basket.
Wofford won the SoCon tournament and punched their ticket to the dance, where they will face the Arkansas Razorbacks in the first round.
The Mercer Bears’ first year in the SoCon did not end in the NCAA tournament like many had hoped, but they showed true heart and integrity throughout the tournament and proved why they will be a force in the conference for many years to come.