Spartans Fall in Semis
16 hours after a #1 on the ESPN SportsCenter top 10 play to complete a last minute comeback and go to the semifinals of your conference tournament, it would be easy for a young college basketball team to experience a bit of a hangover.
Dave Dickerson has repeatedly pointed out this season that his Upstate Spartans were ranked 323rd in the NCAA in players with Division 1 experience. Some of you are probably thinking “Who keeps up with that? Why is that even a stat?” Can’t say I haven’t found myself asking the same thing. But, one thing is for sure based on that fact, the Spartans are a young team, and they have not played like it.
“It’s been tremendous. Those 2 guys (Trae Broadnax and Justin Bailey) are great players, great teammates, and great ambassadors for our program and our university. Trae has come leaps and bounds from where he started out the first game and at Duke November 7th to where he is now, and Justin has a great toughness and turned out to be a really good defender as well. If this is indicative of our program, then we are headed in the right direction”, said Dickerson.
Dickerson has also continually pointed out that his guys’ composure has only gotten better as the season has gone along. The last three weeks of the season and their win Friday afternoon more than give evidence to that. But, even if they did not, you could look at their performance against UNC Asheville Saturday and deduce that for yourself. This is a well-rounded and well-coached team that is maturing at a good time. They would not easily let the high of their 77-76 quarterfinal win go to their heads.
Saturday’s semifinal got off to a slow start pace-wise. Asheville won the tip, which is easy to do when you send the 6 foot 10 inch Drew Pember to the center circle, and scored quickly with a layup 15 seconds in by Nick McMullen. The Spartans answered with a Trae Broadnax layup on the opposite end, setting the tone for a deja vu of yesterday’s indescribable seesaw of a 1st half.
The 2 squads traded baskets until the 14:33 mark. The Spartans really tightened up on defense and rebounded well for a 6 minute stretch in which they just kept chipping away. Prior to that scoreless skid by Asheville, Upstate trailed by 6, the largest lead held by the Bulldogs in the half. By the end of it, USC Upstate led by 4, which would be the largest margin in favor of the Spartans in the half.
That margin could have honestly been a lot larger. The Spartans had 4 wide open looks for threes. On three of those looks, Mysta Goodloe either airballed or missed off the iron. The other was a miss on a 2nd chance shot from Floyd Rideau Jr.
After continuing the teeter tottering, Ahmir Langlais checked in around the 5:25 mark after Nick Alves had to take a seat with 2 fouls. He made his presence known right away, making a layup to give the Spartans a 1 point lead and collected a pass off an offensive rebound by Trae Broadnax to run it inside and put up a second chance layup that extended the lead to 3. Upstate would manage to hold onto the lead the remainder of the half and take a 32-30 lead to the intermission.
The 2nd half tale was much the same. Both teams traded baskets and leads, with Asheville’s largest margin being 7 at the 4:17 mark, and USCU’s being 5 at the 17:11 mark. All the time in between, it was never more than a 1 or 2 possession game that had so much tension that you couldn’t cut through it with a katana.
In the end, Asheville pulled away over the final 4:35 when the Bulldogs went up 7. Jordan Gainey gave it one last shot at a comeback with a pull up jumper for three that made it a one possession game. But, when Upstate had a chance to tie it or cut it to 1, they came up empty, lost a tip on an offensive rebound that led to a steal by Fletcher Abee. He was immediately fouled and split a pair of free throws to seal the 66-62 win for UNC-Asheville.
It was a combination of Drew Pember and Upstate’s inability to hit free throws as well as good defense from the likes of Fletcher Abee, who both Asheville Head Coach Mike Morrell and Drew Pember described as the most undervalued player on the team.
“He guards the best player every single game. He doesn’t have any defensive lapses. He’s unbelievable for us, and he doesn’t get talked about enough”, said Pember.
“He leads our team in stats that don’t appear on a stat sheet. I don’t know how else to put it. He’s literally exhausted after every single game. He plays to exhaustion. More than any kid I have ever coached – and I have been fortunate to coach some good ones. I’ve been flying that flag all year long. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you have a good team. There’s a lot made about these 2 guys up here (Pember and Tajion Jones), and deservedly so, but you don’t win games without that (someone like Abee), and I think in terms of additions to our program, he’s been the greatest. He’s willing to do anything. He’d take a charge on a Nissan. He’s not afraid of it”, Morrell added.
Pember was also quick to be honest about his own defensive play while touting his team mates for picking up the slack when they needed to.
“I was playing terrible defense. Guys were getting underneath me a bit. But, I tried to buckle down. They helped me so much tonight. I was so awful defensively for the majority of the game, but Nick (McMullen, who had 2 blocks and pulled down 4 defensive rebounds) and everybody had my back tonight, so I am thankful for that.”
One thing I have learned about this Asheville team this season is that their success is tied to the contribution of their “supporting cast.” Drew Pember is a phenomenal basketball player and he is gonna do “Drew Pember things.” He is going to hang a double double in nearly every game with 20 or more points. With his size, he is going to draw a lot of fouls, make a lot of free throws, and pull down a lot of boards. He is a walking mismatch in every regard. But, as an old friend always used to remind me, “One man does not a team make.” The play of Fletcher Abee, Jamon Battle, Tajion Jones, etc all were what really made the difference.
Dave Dickerson has harped on how his guys have played “connected” this season, especially here during the home stretch. Drew Pember was quick to use that phrase when asked about what they did better than when they lost to Upstate at the Hodge Center back on February 4th.
“We just played more connected. When we went down there, there’s a lot of switches and defensive coverages that we messed up. We weren’t as connected as we usually are and we don’t really know what happened. We always say that the most connected team is going to win the game and that comes with the team chemistry level and showing respect for one another. That’s how it plays out most of the time.”
They held the man that last night earned himself superhero status, Jordan Gainey, to just 3 of 12 from the field with 8 points. Only 2 Spartans scored in double figures – Justin Bailey and Trae Broadnax. Trae logged 16 points on 7 for 16 shooting with 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals. Justin Bailey tabbed 15 points on 5 of 8 from the floor with 3 boards, 2 assists, and a steal.
Mike Morrell was quick to give the Spartans their due in his postgame comments while also praising the job Dave Dickerson has done with the program.
“I give a lot of credit to Upstate. They’ve got guards that will put you on your heels for the entirety of the game and what they do with us that is extremely smart is that we primarily play with a 2 forward lineup and they play 4 guards. They put Big Fella (Pember) over here in a bind a little bit, which is why he’s a little down on himself. He was better than he’s giving himself credit for but it’s just a battle.
Dave Dickerson’s opening comments, which showed just how much he loves his players and feels for them, seem to be the most fitting way to put a bow on things.
“Just an unbelievable range of emotions. The highest of highs yesterday, the lowest of lows this afternoon. This hurts a lot. Even though they’re the best team in the conference, I thought we were better than them and I thought we were gonna win the game. It’s just an unfortunate loss for our program and for our seniors. So we have to regroup and see where we go from here. It’s just a shameful and tough loss for our program and our guys who played their hearts out. I thought we had a chance to be one of the best teams in this conference and cut down the nets, but unfortunately, we are not gonna get that opportunity.”
With the win, Asheville advances to the championship game, where they will face Campbell, at 1:00 PM.