USC Upstate Enjoys Evening in the Sun with Milestone Win

John HooperCorrespondent IIJanuary 15, 2012

USC Upstate 10th-year head coach Eddie Payne (Photo Courtesy of USC Upstate Athletics)
USC Upstate 10th-year head coach Eddie Payne (Photo Courtesy of USC Upstate Athletics)

USC Upstate reached uncharted territory on Saturday night with its 69-62 win over 2011 A-Sun Tournament runner-up North Florida in a key Atlantic Sun tilt at the UNF Arena in Jacksonville.

It was the 28th win as a Division I member and the 681st overall as a program that gave USC Upstate basketball fans and former players reason to celebrate another milestone for a program with a storied past that includes a national championship.

The win saw the Spartans improve their overall record to 10-8, achieving a double-digit total for the first time in its fifth season at the NCAA Division I classification. Upstate hasn't been above .500 this late in the season since its last as a Division II member in the 2006-07 campaign.

The previous record for wins in the Division I era for the Spartans was established in the 2008-09 campaign, in which the Spartans posted nine victories. The ninth and final victory that season came with an 80-51 win over Kennesaw State on Feb. 28.

The Spartans were in their second season of a four-year mandatory transitional phase, which meant they were not allowed to qualify for the Atlantic Sun's postseason tournament, and the Spartans finished that campaign with a 9-21 overall mark. 

Thirty years ago, USC Upstate was on top of its classification, then under the distinction USC-Spartanburg Rifles, as the program reached the pinnacle of the NAIA mountain with a 51-38 win over Viola College in Kansas City to put the finishing touches on a magical 1981-82 season.

Thirty years later and a couple of rungs higher up the college basketball ladder, the program has a new handle (USC Upstate) and mascot (Spartans), but has the same desire to embark on that climb, now with a new, significant milestone to display in a cabinet already full of great players, memories, traditions and previous benchmarks.

The mid-January excitement at the small school with an enrollment of 5,471 is at an all-time high, as students, former players and alumni may begin to entertain visions of March Madness if the Spartans maintain their current status as one of the top eight teams in the 10-team conference—only the top eight qualify for the league's postseason festivities.

If the season ended today, not only would the Spartans find themselves part of the 2012 General Shale Brick Atlantic Sun Tournament, they would be one of the top four seeds to host an opening-round game.

Making this development an even more eyebrow-raising story is the fact that Upstate was picked to finish ninth out of 10 teams in the preseason coaches' poll, but are now in good standing to reach the tournament and also host a game in its first season of postseason eligibility.

With its 4-2 league mark right now, the Spartans find themselves tied for third in the league standings with East Tennessee State and Stetson.

Veteran head coach Eddie Payne, however, will hope his team doesn't  look too far ahead, presents a new problem for Payne: the program's recent ascension to college basketball's elite level. In the previous seasons as a Division I member, it's safe to say Upstate didn't have the luxury of looking ahead and taking games for granted.

With its vast improvement from a team that finished 5-25 a year ago, keeping his Spartans in check and focused will be a different challenge for Payne.

He is no stranger to seeing his team succeed as underdogs, and during his stint at Oregon State (1995-2000), Payne's undermanned Beavers nearly took down down the Cameron Dollar and the defending NCAA Champion, the UCLA Bruins, only to fall 68-66, as a potential game-winning three-point shot rolled around the rim and came out at the buzzer.

If the veteran coach can take a program with not much talent and nearly knock off a team of that ilk, just imagine what Payne's Spartans, who are stocked with talent in just the program's fifth season at the Division I level, can do in the future in the A-Sun.

Payne knows about pressure situations, and what he is building at USC Upstate is remarkable. 

As for the seven-point win over North Florida on Saturday night, the Spartans were able to gut out the victory in a game that featured 10 lead changes and eight ties. Atlantic Sun leading scorer Torrey Craig had to fight for everything he could get against one of the league's top defensive clubs, but all Craig did was go out and post a double-double of 17 points and 12 boards in the milestone win.  

Craig was joined in double figures by classmates Babatunde Olumuyiwa, who posted a season-high 14 points, and Jodd Maxey, who chipped in 12 points to continue his big impact in his first season donning the Spartan green and black. The win by Upstate also snaps a three-game losing skid to North Florida. 

Upstate looks to remain in the A-Sun's upper echelons on Monday night, traveling just across the street to take on the Jacksonville Dolphins at Swisher Gymnasium. The tip-off for the contest is slated for 7 p.m.