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Spartans’ Season Comes To An End In Tourney

In the course of any sports season, there comes a point where you just have to acknowledge that your team is what they are. There is no better evidence for that than the 2023-2024 season the USC Upstate men’s basketball team has experienced. While it had its highs and lows, the Spartans have been plagued by the same issues all season long – inability to rebound the basketball, streakiness when it comes to shooting and the extended scoring droughts that come with that territory, as well as poor execution at the free throw line. When you have those issues, it is difficult to compete consistently in the regular season, much less to win when it comes down to March.


Those issues all make up the tale of the tape for Upstate’s battle with the #9-seeded Radford Highlanders in the first round of the Big South Conference Tournament on Wednesday night. The Spartans entered the game as the 8 seed in the play-in game by way of top-seeded High Point’s last-second loss to Longwood this past Saturday, and would need to execute at the highest level they have all season for a shot at advancing to face the host Panthers on Friday in the quarterfinals.


Things did not start off in very ideal fashion for Upstate, as Radford opened on a 4-0 spurt while the Spartans missed on each of their first 2 shot attempts. On their third possession, Jalen Breazeale finally got the scoring started by burying the first of back to back threes that sparked an 8-0 burst to the under 16 timeout. Radford responded with a short 6-0 push of their own to take a brief lead before Jalen Breazeale struck yet again with a driving layup to tie the game at 10, starting a 2:07 stretch where Upstate pushed their lead to 17-10 going into the under 12 break. They would not look back for the rest of the half.


Radford was able to trim the deficit as low as 1 point, but at the intermission, it was USC Upstate that held the narrow 32-29 advantage.


Radford took the lead for the first time since their run to start the game just over a minute into the 2nd half on a pair of Bryan Antoine free throws, making it 33-32 at the time. Upstate set the tone for the half by responding with a layup from Ahmir Langlais to go back up one. From there things evolved into a war of attrition with both sides trading baskets and leads all the way. All in all, there were 7 lead changes and 5 ties in the game’s final 20 minutes. Neither side had a scoring run longer than 6-0.


The game was all but decided in one clutch shot with 33 seconds left on the clock. Radford’s DaQuan Smith put up a long three from the right side, putting the Highlanders up by 5. USCU managed to pull back within three points, but in the end, the combination of Justin Archer, Bryan Antoine, and Kenyon Giles went 5 for 6 from the free throw line in the last 25 seconds to seal the 67-60 win and advance to the quarterfinals.


The key difference in this game was rebounding. Radford pulled down 51 total boards to Upstate’s 33. Twenty-one of the Highlanders’ rebounds were offensive, which led to 29 second chance points. On the flipside, Upstate hauled in just 7 of their misses for 5 second chance points. Another difference maker was the free throw differential. As has been a common theme all season, Upstate shot less than 50 percent from the stripe – going just 9 for 19. Radford was 21 of 24 (87.5%).


“I thought it was the same old tune for us the whole year in the sense that we defended well and got them to miss. We just couldn’t get the basketball. Whenever you give up 21 offensive rebounds, it’s gonna be hard to win. Our whole season was marred with inability to get the basketball. That’s on me as a Head Coach. We lost some good guys last year that could go and get the basketball. We need to get guys like that back in the program.”, said USC Upstate’s Dave Dickerson.


“Their zone slowed us down with our inability to get the basketball. I thought at one point without their zone we could outscore them. But it made us stagnant a little bit and we just weren’t making shots. We got stagnant. Their zone really stopped us, and our inability to get rebounds helped them to stay in that zone. We couldn’t get the ball enough to get them in transition to score enough”, he later added.


Despite the heartbreaking end to a forgettable season, there was a big positive with a local tie for the Spartans. Jalen Breazeale, a Dorman High alum and redshirt sophomore Guard, has been working his way back from an achilles injury suffered over 2 years ago. Jalen had a new career-high in points with 19 to go along with his 6 assists, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals, which led the team.


“As he (Jalen) got healthy down the stretch this season, he began to play better and the offense began to click a little better. But when you look at those numbers, they are good, but in a loss, they are not good. JB has come a long way since October 16, 2021 when he tore his achilles. It is good to see him play well. But, he would say the same thing – playing well in a loss is not a good thing” said Dickerson.


Ahmir Langlais was the lone other Spartan in double figures with 10 points, 4 boards, an assist, and a block. Trae Broadnax logged 9 with 3 rebounds, and 2 assists. Jordyn Surratt tallied eight points with a rebound and an assist while Justin Bailey put up 6 with 7 rebounds, and 2 assists.


While the season did not go the way anyone in the Upstate camp expected, finishing 10-20 with a 5-11 record in conference, Coach Dickerson looks back at this season as a success for one reason while looking ahead to next with one priority in mind.


“The positive has been that we have had a good locker room. It has been one of the best we have had since I have been at Upstate as far as chemistry, energy, and personalities we have had. Those guys were a breath of fresh air and it was good to coach guys that were a breath of fresh air. It has been a joy to see guys bounce back. When you have a tough year like we had, it is hard to get guys off the mat to come in and work hard everyday and these guys did that. Looking ahead, we are losing a lot as far as leadership goes. We have a good nucleus coming back next year. But, we have to do a great job of recruiting. That is the name of the game now. We have to change our fortunes and turn the page really quickly. As soon as we get back to Spartanburg, we have to hit the road and find some players.”


Now, the attention for Upstate turns to the womens’ team, who will play in the quarterfinals on Thursday night against the 7th-seeded Longwood Lancers with a tentative 7:00 tip.

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