Upstate Ends Regular Season With Win
It was a busy day with homecoming festivities, a baseball tournament, and varying other events taking place on the USC Upstate campus on Saturday afternoon. The Spartans hosted the Gardner-Webb University Runnin’ Bulldogs in their Big South Conference and Regular Season finale – with plenty of implications on the line.
For one, the Spartans, who were picked to finish 8th, had a chance to lock up a first round bye for the 2nd straight year. Last year, they were picked last in the Big South and finished 4th in the standings, losing to Longwood in the semifinals. Thanks to Campbell being upset by Winthrop on Wednesday night, it opened the door for Upstate and Gardner-Webb to be battling for the 4 seed. For Gardner-Webb, a win and a finish in a tie with Radford at 11-7 in conference would mean they would be the 4. A win over Gardner-Webb for the Spartans would put them in a tie with Winthrop at 10-8 in conference play, making them the 4 seed and GWU the 5. That wackiness is the Big South Conference in a nutshell.
On top of the craziness both in the standings and on campus with the homecoming festivities, Upstate also recognized their 5 seniors before the game – Khydarius Smith, Nick Alves, Mysta Goodloe, Dave Dickerson III, and Thomas Sheida. They would fittingly serve as the starting 5 for the Spartans in the contest.
“This year’s seniors are just special for our program. They trusted us and they trusted me as a coach to come to Upstate. You want guys to come in three or four years and lead the program better, and those guys have done that. When Khy (Khydarius Smith) and Mysta (Goodloe), especially those two guys, along with Nick Alves), when those three guys are playing high-level basketball, it makes us hard to beat. Mysta made some phenomenal defensive plays tonight. Khy had two big free throws, putting the ball in the basket when we needed, and they were just being calm. Nick had a 5-0 run for us that we needed as well. So, um, you know, Thomas Shada and D III, my son, those two guys are the reason why we’re as good as we are. Because they’re everyday guys, even though they’re walk-ons, they’re just everyday guys, they’re positive, and they love where they are.”
One thing that Dave Dickerson has repeatedly said when his team wins in big games is that they play “connected”. They share the ball, they execute the fundamentals, they do the little things well. They play with a high level of confidence, and they keep their composure even when things don’t go well. That happened in today’s game.
Things got off to a back and forth start in the contest, with Upstate establishing a 9-6 lead after Jordan Gainey drained a pair of free throws out of the first media timeout. Both teams had their share of long scoreless skids in the first half of action, with Gardner-Webb being held scoreless for about 2 and a half minutes. Upstate had 2 significant skids of about 2:30 and 6:00 – going 1 for 10 from the field during the 6 minute span. Their lone 4 points came from the line before that streak was snapped by a Trae Broadnax layup with 3:38 to play in the first half.
At the intermission, USCU held a 31-26 lead, despite a 9-20 effort from the field, including 2 for 7 from three point range. Gardner-Webb did not fare much better shooting in the first half, thanks in part to Upstate’s good defense. They held the Bulldogs to 9-27 from the floor in the first stanza. The major difference maker, which would also be a key difference in the game, was the charity stripe. But, we will get to that later.
The second half was a much different story as the Spartans got back to playing their brand of basketball. The two teams continued to trade baskets, with neither taking off on a lengthy scoring run. The Spartans continued to find ways to answer when they needed to and keep things to within 6-8 points all half until the final 5 minutes.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs trimmed the Upstate lead down to under 6 for the first time all half when Jordan Gainey hit a 3 from about 26 feet out with the shot clock down to mere milliseconds to make it an 8 point game. Gardner-Webb responded with a 5-0 burst to make a one possession affair. The 3-5 point back and forth continued until Trae Broadnax, in similar fashion to Wednesday night’s come-from-behind win at Presbyterian, nailed a pair of clutch free throws. Following a steal by Justin Bailey, he was fouled and drained both free throws, ultimately sealing the game for the Spartans, as they pulled away for the 75-69 win.
Upstate executed well at the stripe all game long, going 21 for 23 (91 percent), while the Bulldogs, in spite of several chances to make a difference at the line in the final minutes, went 18 for 29.
“Free Throws are one of those things a coach thinks they have to work on. A week or 2 weeks ago, I stopped working on free throws. I stopped shooting free throws in practice. I told the guys ‘If we are gonna be a good team, we have to make free throws, so do it on your own.’ We started the free throw thing (shooting them calmly and with patience, executing and not missing) in the first half and it carried over throughout the game”, said Dickerson about what has changed in his team’s approach at the line and preparation for shooting clutch free throws down the stretch.
Aside from the free throw talk and praise for his seniors, Dickerson said that despite connectedness and keeping composure to put the game away at the line late, his guys still did not play a full 40 minutes.
“We didn’t play with the pace we wanted to for 40 minutes tonight. First half, we had the lead, but we weren’t popping the basketball around the horn. We only had one assist and six turnovers, but in the second half we played the way Upstate plays and we played good basketball, and I really liked that for my guys.”
The Spartans, despite “blowing a tire” at High Point last Saturday to snap a 4 game win streak, are still undoubtedly playing their best basketball of the season right now. Over the course of the conference slate, they have beaten every team top to bottom in the standings at least once, with the exception of being swept by Campbell. There is little doubt there is some substance to the confidence aspect of Dickerson’s “playing connected” when it comes to this team.
For the 2nd straight season, they were picked towards the bottom in preseason and finished in the top 4 heading into the conference tournament – a testament to another thing Dickerson has said a lot after big wins this season – that they are “program wins.”
“It was a program win and we talked about this before the game, and we talked about this on Thursday and Friday; about how we wanted to elevate our program. In order to do that, you needed to win this game. Our guys came out focused. They came out ready to play, and we did some good things, but most importantly, we gave ourselves a chance now to breathe a little bit this week going to Charlotte playing really our best. We’re definitely playing our best basketball of the season and we’re playing connected. I love our confidence and I love the way we’re practicing. We’ve gotten healthy at the right time and that has helped us to have better practices. A lot of guys are getting some reps that we need and we’re looking forward to the tournament in Charlotte. It is tournament basketball. I’ve coached in three final fours and won a national championship. You gotta be playing your best basketball now and like we said, this is officially March Madness. So we gotta practice well, we gotta play well, and we gotta do all the little things that we talk about, like defend, rebound, and take care of the basketball. And then have an offensive toughness. If we can do those things, then I like our chances in Charlotte.”
The Spartans finish the regular season at 15-14 overall, and 10-8 in the Big South Conference. They will receive a first round bye in the Big South Tournament next weekend in Charlotte as the 4th seed, meaning they will face the 5 seed on Friday afternoon at 2:00. If the rough calculations are correct, that will mean that there will be a rematch with Gardner-Webb (the 5 seed) in the Bojangles Coliseum on Friday, which Coach Dickerson closed by saying they will be ready for.
“Our goal is just like everybody’s goal should be in the Big South. You want to win the Big South tournament and try to get to the NCAA tournament. So we’re gonna talk about that a lot and we’re gonna own that. We’re gonna push ourselves to try and be the best version of ourselves, which is the players are gonna push the coaches and the coaches are gonna push the players and we want to go up to Charlotte on Friday and play our best basketball and give ourselves a chance. I trust this program and I trust our guys. We’ll be ready to play.”