Upstate Women Still Atop Conference With Defeat of Longwood
On National Women and Girls in Sports Day, it was fitting that the USC Upstate women’s basketball team, who is in the thick of a race for their first-ever Big South Conference regular season championship, would get a chance to inspire a crowd teeming with youth from across the county on their home court.
The Spartans lept to the top of the Big South standings with a win over Presbyterian College a week ago, but suffered a setback on the road to begin the 2nd half of their conference schedule, falling in overtime 67-61 at Radford. The story of that game was the Highlanders’ ability to score in the 2nd half.
Upstate led by 8 at the break, but it was the Highlanders that got hot down the stretch. They outscored the Spartans 13-10 in the 3rd quarter and used an 8-0 run in the 4th to bring the game within a point, ultimately forcing overtime with a huge free throw in the waning seconds. Once again, the Highlanders found a rhythm late in the extra period, pulling to the win.
That storyline is one that Coach Jason Williams’ squad was going to have to avoid a repeat of in order to come away at the very least tied with High Point for 1st in the standings – and history very nearly did repeat itself Wednesday night.
Longwood, despite being 6-16 overall and 3-6 in the Big South, is a team that defends well until they get worn down. They averaged 11 steals per game coming into the night and just 4.2 three pointers made per game. They swarmed to the ball in the paint and limited the Spartans’ ability to find a lane to the hoop in the early going, forcing the Spartans to pass the rock around the perimeter, which played into Upstate’s game plan.
The Spartans, although they are quick in transition, tend to eat as much of the shot clock as they can lately, and, as coach Williams puts it, “share the sugar” – pass a lot. On the flipside, the Spartans matched the Lancers’ defensive aggression – leading to a very low scoring first 10 minutes.
The Spartans started 1 for their first 4 from the field, while Longwood went 3-3 to start the game. At the first quarter media timeout, the Lancers led 9-6. USC Upstate finally found their stride when Dakota Reeves snapped a 3:10 scoreless streak with a three from the left wing for the Spartans’ first trey of the game. Trinity Johnson added to it by giving the Spartans their first lead of the night at 13-11 on a floating jumper with just 13 seconds to play in the period.
Upstate would turn that into a 7-0 run that spanned nearly 2 and a half minutes before Longwood’s Frances Ulysse hit a layup halfway through the 2nd quarter. Upstate would turn it into a 10-2 overall run ahead of the 2nd quarter media timeout, and would lead 27-22 going to the half.
In the 3rd quarter, the Spartans opened up their largest lead of the night at 12 points, appearing to be cruising away with the win. But, in the same fashion as the Radford game, Upstate went cold with a chance to ice it away, allowing the Lancers to hang around.
USCU went on a nearly 7 minute scoring drought during which Longwood went on a 9-0 run to cut the Spartans’ lead down to just 1 early in the 4th quarter. Trinity Johnson snapped it by sinking a pair of free throws, sparking a 4-0 burst to go back up 5. Johnson later completed a 3 point play after Longwood once again cut it back to a 1 possession game, putting Upstate up 6 with a minute and some change on the clock. However, it was far from over.
With Just 21 ticks remaining, LWU’s Malea Brown hit a three from the right wing to tie the game at 45, which had to have Upstate’s fans feeling like they were about to witness some deja vu. Fortunately, no French was needed to describe this game’s final seconds. In fact, it can be summed up in two simple words – free throws.
Jeni Levine was fouled on the opposite end following the tying trey and hit both free throws to put the Spartans up 2. Longwood made a crucial error in calling a timeout trying to avoid a 5 second violation on an inbound when they had none remaining with 1.4 seconds left on the clock, which led to Trinity Johnson going to the stripe to seal the game on a technical foul. She hit both free throws, making Upstate 15 of 19 from the line on the night, as the Spartans pulled out the 49-45 victory.
“Our kids did a really good job of being resilient. That word keeps coming out of my mouth. But, our kids always find a way to finish a game and find a way to be on the positive side of winning in general. The other aspect of it from a coaching perspective is finding a way to expand on our lead and put a game away so that it doesn’t have to come down to the last possession of the 4th quarter. We have to be able to clear that up as we have just 6 basketball games left to be able to finish Big South play”, said Coach Williams.
“Our poise and ability to finish plays defensively were the difference. We did a good job of holding them to one and done possessions in the 4th quarter. They had a stretch where they had 3 or 4 offensive rebounds to finish the 3rd quarter, but that was the extent of their opportunities. For us to be able to go one and done and push in transition – we are really good as we move and play with pace in space. I love our kids’ ability to be confident and put some pressure on the defensive side of the floor so we can get out and push in transition”, added Williams.
Upstate was led by Rebekah Gordon as the lone Spartan in double figures. She had 11 points, 7 rebounds, and a steal. Trinity Johnson was just shy of the doubles, although in the end, she was the hero of the night. She had 9 points to go with 5 assists and 2 rebounds. Jeni Levine tallied 8 points with 2 assists, 2 boards, and 2 steals. AC Markham logged 7 with an assist, 5 boards, and a pair of steals while both Dakota Reeves and Isabell West had 6 points each.
The Spartans, now tied with High Point atop the standings at 8-1 in Big South play and 12-10 overall, will now look to pick up some points in the ‘I-26 Rivalry’ series on Saturday as they go to a difficult environment at UNC Asheville. Tip off is set for 1:00 PM.