Spartans Winning Streak Comes to End
The Spartans came into the night hot as they have been all season long, with back-to-back wins for the first time since week 2, when they beat Carolina University and followed it with a big road win over East Carolina. Those 2 Big South wins, which included a wire-to-wire 78-69 conquest of Radford and a huge 69-64 victory at Longwood, could not have come at a better time.
Prior to last week, USC Upstate found themselves sitting at the very bottom of the Big South Conference standings with a 1-7 record – in danger of having to play on the first day of the conference tournament. With those 2 wins, it propelled them to a tie with PC for 7th. While that still has them as a possible play-in team, their chances are significantly better at getting a bye than they were.
“The conference gave us a bad schedule”, said USC Upstate head coach Dave Dickerson in jest when asked about this stretch where they will have played the top 2 teams in the Big South back to back.
“Conference basketball is the best. Playing in February is the best. I was worried at one time that we couldn’t win games in this league. Now I know we can win games in this conference. And we are gonna do that”, added Dickerson regarding their tough run through their schedule up to this point.
The only thing better than the conference races in February are the rivalries, and USC Upstate came into Saturday’s tilt looking for not only a third straight win, but their first in the series since the rivalry was declared official.
Upstate would come into the night down one of their key inside presences. Patrick Iriel was deemed unavailable due to a back injury. That, plus having to contend with the likes of the unanimous preseason Big South Player of the Year – the 6 foot 11 Drew Pember, created a mismatch that would give the Spartans fits.
The 2 sides got off to a sluggish start, with the score being just 4-2 in favor of the Bulldogs at the first media timeout. Out of the break, Asheville jumped ahead 3 only to have Justin Bailey tie it at 7 with a three from the left wing at the 14:43 mark.
After the Bulldogs were called for a charge on their ensuing possession, Jalen Breazeale gave USC Upstate the lead on a three, and leading into the under 12 media, Floyd Rideau Jr and Breazeale went back to back from beyond the arch to give the Spartans their then-largest lead of the night at 20-14.
Out of the timeout, Upstate extended the run to 8-1 on a layup from Jorge Ochoa with just under 10 minutes to play in the half, making it 22-15 before their offense vanished over the next 2 minutes and 39 seconds. Asheville went on an 8-2 burst in that stretch to the under 4 break, cutting the Spartans’ lead to 29-28, but a 7-4 run to the half helped USC Upstate hold the advantage 36-32.
“I thought our first half was terrific. I loved our energy and even though we had 10 turnovers at the half, our energy was contagious. I thought our guys played forward. We were connected as a team and played through our mistakes”, said Dickerson.
The 2nd half got off to about as rocky of a start as you could ask for. Upstate started the period 1 for their first 4, leading to a 2:36 scoring drought that the Bulldogs took full advantage of, going on a 7-0 streak to take the lead on a Josh Banks three at the 15:30 mark. They never looked back from there.
That 7-0 burst very quickly became a 17-4 run that stretched out over 6 and a half minutes, all but putting the game away for the Bulldogs. Upstate managed to pull it back as close as 8, but in the end, they fell 77-64, thanks to a double-double from Drew Pember (28 points, 16 rebounds), and giving the Bulldogs 17 points on 20 turnovers.
“In the second half, it was just one of those things where Asheville became the team that they are – which is a good team. They shot the ball well and played faster in transition, and we just could not combat that. Asheville is a good team. Give those guys credit. They came in the 2nd half and played like a championship-level team. Hats off to them. They came in and did what they needed to do. Their best players became great players tonight”, said Coach Dickerson.
Upstate was led by Jalen Breazeale, who logged 13 points on 4 of 8 from the field and a perfect 2 for 2 at the line along with 4 assists. Nick Alves and Justin Bailey rounded out the Spartans in double figures, both tallying 11 points. Bailey fouled out of the game with 6 rebounds to add to his line, while Alves added an assist and 2 boards.
Upstate, now 8-15 overall and 3-7 in the Big South, goes on the road Wednesday night with a 7:00 tip to take on the High Point Panthers, who sit atop the standings at 9-1. After that, the Spartans will have a much easier road and the added advantage of playing 3 of their last 4 games at home as they take on Gardner-Webb. Charleston Southern, and Presbyterian with a stop at Winthrop in between.
Asked about the upcoming schedule and the home court advantage, Dickerson closed with this.
“I’m all in with Upstate and Upstate has been all in with us. ‘Spartan Army’ has been very important. Even though Softball and Baseball and the spring sports have started, our fans have been unbelievable. I wish we could have given our fans more energy tonight. We just have to get some rest and get our minds and game right. But, our guys will be ready for High Point and they will show up and give us a chance to win.”