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Jordan Gainey Sends Upstate To Semis

*Insert March Madness/Postseason Cliche here*. 


If the cliche you chose to insert there was “Win or go home”, you halfway began to describe the Big South Conference Quarterfinal match between the 4th seeded USC Upstate Spartans and the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs. 


If the cliche you opted for was “They don’t call it March Madness for nothing”, you would also be correct in your attempt to describe what occurred in the Bojangles’ Coliseum in Charlotte Friday afternoon.


The more mid-major conference tournaments I get the privilege of covering, the more I come to realize that there is nothing like it. The one-bid leagues that already make for crazy races for seeding in their respective tournaments in the regular season only take that intensity and pressure of the “win or go home” mantra to a whole new level. 


The Spartans and Runnin’ Bulldogs split 2 close games during the regular season with Upstate falling 78-66 at Paul Porter Arena in Boiling Springs in their first meeting. The regular season ended with USCU pulling away late in a nailbiter on homecoming/senior day at the GB Hodge Center a week ago 75-69. This rematch with the season and the bragging rights of winning 2 of 3 matchups on the season on the line, this one was sure to be a barn burner. 


I cannot begin to sufficiently put to words how the first half went. A seesaw seems a woeful understatement. After both teams came up empty on their first 2 possessions, Jordan Gainey put the Spartans ahead on a jumper for 2 at the 18:38 mark. Gardner-Webb responded with a 3 on the opposite end by Lucas Stieber, which set the tone for the day. 


Neither team was able to jump out to any bigger than 6 points in the first half (Upstate, at the 7:51 mark). Neither team went on any higher of a scoring run than 8-0 (Gardner-Webb at the 13:20 mark). The major difference maker of the half, and really the entire game, was the battle off the glass and fouls. In the first half, Gardner-Webb pulled down 22 rebounds to USC Upstate’s 17. Of those 22, 17 of them were of the defensive variety. That alone was not immediately a fatal flaw for Upstate. The Spartans managed to pull down 16 defensive boards. But, they were whistled for 13 of the 21 combined fouls between both squads in the first stanza, which in spite of a 5-11 effort at the line, allowed the Runnin’ Bulldogs to stay in the game. 


You do have to give credit where it is due. Both teams played incredibly well on the defensive side of the ball. They were both barely over 40% from the field in the first half. Gardner-Webb did a phenomenal job of playing man on man, absolutely smothering Upstate and forcing them to settle for bad shots. When the Spartans did manage to make a drive for the basket, every shot was tightly contested and they had to earn every inch they got in the paint. 


At the half, Gardner-Webb led by a slim 35-32 margin, which would end up setting the stage for a 2nd half that was even wilder than the first. 


The 2nd stanza started with the Bulldogs building their largest advantage of the game up to that point, jumping ahead by 7 before Upstate and GWU both had a stretch of going 3 for 3 from the field. That 7 point cushion allowed the Runnin Bulldogs to maintain a 6 point lead at the under 16 media timeout. 


Prior to the next break in the game, the Spartans worked their way back to tie it thanks to a 5-0 burst capped with a huge wide open 3 from the left corner by Mysta Goodloe when Gardner-Webb was short a man because of an injured player down on the other side. 


Trae Broadnax sank a pair of free throws to give Upstate a 1 point lead after GWU came up empty on their ensuing possession. But it did not last and the teeter totter swung back Gardner-Webb’s way. After re-tying the game at 51 with a pair of free throws split by Justin Bailey, the Runnin’ Bulldogs did just that and ran ahead by a couple of possessions. They built as big a margin as 8 just under 6:00 to play in the game when once again, the Spartans kept fighting back, keeping within striking distance up to the biggest moment of the game. 


USC Upstate’s historical namesake, the Spartans, were an ancient Greek state. Ancient Greek mythology is full of big men who accomplished heroic feats and became god-like legends. Semi-ironically, the Big South Tournament is sponsored by Hercules Tires. In this game, there was one Spartan who etched himself into legend akin to that of the demigod hero Hercules. That man was Jordan Gainey. 


The all Big South First team selection was a key figure in the game, leading the way for Upstate with 25 points on 9 of 16 from the field and a perfect 4 for 4 at the charity stripe. But of those 9 shots he made, none was bigger than his last 2. 


Trailing by 5 with 16 seconds to play, it seemed like all hope was lost for the Spartans. But, Gainey drained a quick 3 on a pullup jumper to cut the deficit to 2. Then came the hero moment.. 


With just milliseconds left on the clock, Upstate tipped an inbound pass and came up with a steal. Jordan Gainey took the ball to the right wing and quickly turned around with a defender in his face, putting up a turnaround pull up jumper that banked in off the glass for a 3 to give Upstate the lead 76-77 with just a tenth of a second to play. 


Gardner Webb’s inbound heave down the court went wide, securing a berth in the Big South Semifinals for the Spartans. 


4 Spartans scored in double figures in the win, continuing a trend of Upstate winning games in which that occurs. Trae Broadnax and Khydarius Smith both logged 12 points on a combined 8 for 14 from the field. Mysta Goodloe logged 10 points on 4 of 8 shooting with 4 rebounds. Justin Bailey just missed out on double figures with 9 on 2 for 9 shooting (3-4 from the line) with 5 rebounds and 2 assists with 2 steals. 


Dave Dickerson had these thoughts about the game and the resolve/composure his guys showed, particularly in the 2nd half. 


“Give credit to Gardner-Webb.They were incredible. They came out and played hard and they controlled the paint. Our guys just stayed with it. Floyd Rideau said it best going to the locker room. Sometimes in March basketball, it’s not about the X’s and O’s. It’s about the Jimmys and Joes, and we had Jordan Gainey today. It was a big time shot. A big time play. We are excited for our team, our program, and our university. This is probably the first time this year we have lost our composure. But we got it back. Coming into the year, we were ranked 323rd in the NCAA in D1 playing experience. Our composure has gotten better throughout the year and it was really really good today.”


Upstate will move on to face UNC Asheville Saturday at noon for a spot in the championship game on Sunday.

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