Spartans Open Home Slate With Win
The 2023 season has been off to about as good a start as you could hope for the USC Upstate Spartans, given the competition they have faced.
They opened the season in Columbia last Monday against a South Carolina team that has proven itself to be much more aggressive on both sides of the ball. They were limited to just 35 percent from the field and 25 percent from three point range as the Gamecocks went on to the 82-53 win.
They followed that up with a short week, heading up to Nashville for another tilt with an SEC foe in the Vanderbilt Commodores on Friday. The Spartans shot much better in that contest, going 43.6% from the floor and 50 percent from beyond the arch in a narrow 74-67 loss.
Upstate would see their schedule ease up on extremely short preparation as they took to their home court for the first time this season to host the Carolina University Bruins from the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association (NCCAA) Sunday night.
The game got off to a quick start as Justin Bailey came up with a steal after Carolina won the tip and went down the court for a fast break layup. The Bruins went on to tie things up after Ahmir Langlais picked up his first personal and they hit both free throws. From that point on, neither team could put together a scoring run, instead trading baskets up until the after the under 16 media timeout, when the Spartans went on a 5-0 run to take an 11-8 lead.
Upstate would basically put the game away with a 21-0 run spanning nearly 5 and a half minutes from the 13:56 mark of the half up to the 8:28. That run saw one of the game’s most significant storylines play out.
Jalen Brazeale, who played his high school ball for Thomas Ryan at Dorman, played his first minutes since the 2021 season after redshirting all of 2022-2023 with an injury. He had to sit out the first week of the season due to a medical requirement to wait 2 games before being fully cleared to play on a minutes restriction. Not only did he play his first minutes during that run. He made them meaningful.
Jalen hit a corner three with 13:54 to go in the half for his first points of the season and followed it up on the Spartans’ next possession with a layup. He scored 5 of the 21 on that run to lead the way. He went on to finish the game tied with Thomas Sheida for the 2nd most points of the game, scoring 10 on 4-5 from the field, 2 for 3 from distance, a defensive board, an assist, and a steal.
Having Jalen Brazeale back is a boon that cannot be understated for Upstate, even if he is on a minutes restriction.
“I’m not these kids’ parents, but I am around them so much, I felt like a proud father seeing him (Jalen) walk out there. This morning, when I walked in at shootaround, he was nervous. When gametime came and that adrenaline started going, he was like “‘I’m ready to go!’. He’s on a minutes restriction right now, but getting him back into the flow of this team is gonna be big for us just because of his energy, his brain, and his toughness, which is unmatched. He is the toughest guy in our program and we need him on the floor”, said Dave Dickerson.
Jalen Brazeale’s contribution isn’t the only sigh of relief for the Spartans from this, who entered the season with a major question mark with Jordan Gainey’s decision to transfer to Tennessee following the semifinal loss to rival UNC Asheville in the Big South Conference tournament. Justin Bailey, now a sophomore after a phenomenal freshman campaign that saw him score 339 points and shoot 42 percent from the field as well as 34% from beyond the arch, entered this season with big expectations that he might be the guy to fill Gainey’s shoes.
Justin came out the gate strong in this game, scoring 12 of his 14 points in the first half – a total that put him in a three-way tie for the team lead in points on the day with Ahmir Langlais and Nick Alves. He shot 5 of 9 from the field in the opening stanza, including 2 for 5 from three point distance. He also added a pair of assists, went a perfect 2 for 2 from the charity stripe, and logged 3 steals over the course of the game.
“I talk to him (Bailey) about this at least once a week.. What he did at Blue Ridge, we want him to do at Upstate – that’s to be aggressive, be a great teammate, and be totally unselfish. He got beat on a couple of back cuts on defense, which is not good to me, but from an offensive standpoint, we want him to be aggressive because at any time, he can catch fire and we want him to do that” said Coach Dickerson.
In the end, Upstate did exactly what they should have and needed to in order to build some confidence as they prepare for another tough 3 game road stretch over the coming week and a half, starting at East Carolina on Wednesday night with a stop at Minnesota the following Saturday, and bookending at Ball State the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
“It’s gonna be one of those things where we have a war of attrition. We have to make sure it’s a business trip. We have to play good enough basketball to win on the road. ECU is a very good team. Minnesota has been playing great, and Ball State is one of the best programs in midmajor basketball. We have our work cut out for us. But, it is gonna test us and help us get better for the Big South Conference”, said Dickerson regarding the road trip.
Asked about what they did well and what they need to learn and improve on heading into the next 3 games, Dave said this.
“Any time you have 5 guys in double figures, that means the ball is moving. The biggest thing we had tonight was 23 assists on 36 of 37 field goals. That’s the biggest thing – to continue to share the basketball. That’s the way we want to play. We want to be great teammates and be totally unselfish and that’s what we were tonight. We also had 19 steals. We’re the kind of team where we have to hang our hat on the fact we defend at a high level. We have to be very disruptive defensively. We have to figure out how to rebound the basketball and that’s the next step for us. We have a lot of length and athleticism to where we have to make those things work for us.”
“We’re gonna learn just how tough we are. We are trying to play a full 40 minutes. For example, at Vanderbilt, we were up by 4 at halftime and should have been up by 11. We played 20 minutes of really good basketball. We came back out in the 2nd half and did not play with that same intensity. We are gonna try and get our mind right and play 40 minutes of really good basketball, no matter where we are, whether the Hodge or at East Carolina on Wednesday night”, Dickerson added.
To his point, the Spartans defended very well. They forced 28 turnovers, scoring 40 points off of them, while coughing it up just 16 times themselves, surrendering just 13 points off them. Upstate also shot well, scoring a whopping 50 points in the paint, with 47 points coming off the bench – which included a solid 10 points from Thomas Sheida and 8 from Floyd Rideau Jr over the final 6 minutes.
USC Upstate had 5 different shooters in double figures in this game, which aside from the 14 points each from Justin Bailey, Ahmir Langlais, and Nick Alves, and the 10 a piece from Brazeale and Sheida, was topped by Trae Broadnax, who tallied 9 on 4-7 from the floor and 1 of 2 from behind the arch with 3 rebounds and 5 assists.
Jorge Ochoa, a sophomore transfer from the University of Vermont, also had 9 points nearly putting up a double-double, shooting 50 percent from the field (3-6) and a perfect 3-3 from the freethrow line with 8 boards, 4 assists, and a pair of steals.
Three other Spartans scored 8 points apiece in the dominant 106-48 victory, including Jordyn Surratt, Floyd Rideau Jr, and Miguel Ayesa. Surratt was a perfect 4 for 4 from the field with 5 rebounds, 1 assist, and 2 steals.
Upstate, now 1-2, gets their 8-day road swing underway Wednesday night at 7:00 PM, continues with a 2:00 tip on Saturday, and concludes with a 7:00 start the following Tuesday.
The Spartans’ next home contest is slated for Saturday, November 25th against Voorhees College with a 4:00 tip.