USC Upstate Adds Another 'First' in a Season of Firsts

John HooperCorrespondent IIJanuary 21, 2012

Spartans Growing Up Fast (Photo Courtesy of USC Upstate Athletics)
Spartans Growing Up Fast (Photo Courtesy of USC Upstate Athletics)

SPARTANBURG, S.C.—Doing justice to Saturday afternoon's USC Upstate-Belmont clash in the Atlantic Sun is going to be hard to do with words, but here goes. 

To understand Saturday's 79-78 win for USC Upstate on its home floor, you have to rewind the clock back to Dec. 5, 2010, when the first glimpse of success at the Division I level for USC Upstate was ever-present.

On that early December Saturday afternoon, and in front of a raucous crowd which filled the Hodge Center to capacity, as USC Upstate went in search of its first win over another team that hailed from the Volunteer State, as East Tennessee State came to the Hodge Center looking for its seventh-straight win as a league member over Upstate in front of better than 900 fans, mostly students, on-hand to take in the contest.   

Upstate had always been tough on the Hodge Center floor, but it had never quite been able to get over the hump against the league's perennial powers. But that Saturday was the first peek at what has become two outstanding recruiting classes against some of the league's elite, but it also gave the USC Upstate administration a chance to recognize a huge $4 million donation made by Mrs.Dolores (Dodie) Anderson, which helped the Upstate basketball program make some significant facilities upgrades, and that in-turn has enhanced the recruiting.

Though young, the Spartans went on to show the veteran league titan Buccaneers that things were slowly, but surely changing atop the Atlantic Sun power struggle, posting a 60-59 win on that evening. It was a contest which also introduced the Atlantic Sun to a player that has become the most dynamic scorer in the league this season, in Torrey Craig.

The Great Falls, S.C., native posted a game-high 18 points to lead the Spartans to the one-point win. Sophomore Chalmers Rogers, who hadn't seen much action all evening, came up with his only basket of the night—a lay-up in the paint with three seconds to-play—to help the Spartans forge a huge win over one of the league favorites and a team that won back-to-back A-Sun Tournament titles in 2008 and '09. 

The atmosphere was laying in wait, with new video scoreboards, new video equipment, lights, chair-back seats and a new home locker room, it was all up to Eddie Payne's young Spartans to comply and make the Hodge Center one of the toughest places to play in the Atlantic Sun, as well as helping the Upstate, a relative newbie to the Division I ranks, a major contender in the league title race.

The Spartans of course showed fans and those around the league that it could jump up and bite the league's elite from time-to-time at home, but finishing just 5-25 last season, few outside the USC Upstate basketball program figured the Spartans to be much of a challenge to the league's elite, or to factor in to a top-eight finish in the league standings and a subsequent tournament berth in its first season of eligibility.

But after being picked to finish ninth out of 10 teams in the preseason poll, the Spartans figure to be closer to an appearance in Macon, Ga., the first weekend in March rather than getting a head start on recruiting for the 2012-13 season.

Much like that December Saturday 416 days ago, USC Upstate headed into a game against a team from the Volunteer State that was one of the established "gold standards" of the up-and-coming league, and was a team the Spartans head yet to experience the thrill of victory against (0-8). When Belmont joined the Division I ranks in 1996-97, it was a solid basketball program at the Division II level, but most knew it as an institution with one of the best music curricula in the nation, rather than a school noted for its play on the hardwood.

With eight championships (four A-Sun Tournament Titles and four A-Sun Regular-Season crowns) since 2006, however, Belmont has made noise nationally with its string music rather than that of the conventional sort. The Bruins will likely mostly be remembered for that epic performance against Duke in the 2005 NCAA Tournament, which saw the Bruins drop a 73-72 game to the No. 2-seeded Blue Devils only after Josh Hare's desperation 40-foot three-pointer at the buzzer just go awry.

The Bruins have become such a staple of success, a large majority of the "so-called" college basketball experts had the Bruins sending Bo Ryan's Wisconsin Badgers packing in a first-round matchup in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. That of course did not happen, but everywhere the veteran head coach Rick Byrd and his Bruins go, there's no doubt they garner respect.

After all its eight championships since 2006 ranks the program with some of college basketball's elite, and only two Division I college basketball programs have claimed more titles in that same time-span, and those two are pretty recognizable, in Kansas and Gonzaga.  

The 2011-12 Bruins came into the Hodge Center with that same swagger that they had in past seasons, and rightfully so, having won six of their last seven, and took the Duke Blue Devils to the wire early in the season at Cameron Indoor Stadium as part of the Maui Invitational, before dropping a heartbreaking 67-66 contest. 

The atmosphere was there on Saturday, as was Dodie Anderson. It was a loud, early-arriving group of students that did their job of trying to heckle the the visiting Bruins during warm-ups, and there was even a new "pump-up" video for the introduction of the starting lineups. It would now be up to the Spartans, who entered with a Division I record 10 wins, to try and comply with that backdrop. 

It was the "swagger" of the Bruins that dominated the Spartans in the opening half, deflating an atmosphere and a crowd ready-made for a Saturday night celebration, taking a 43-27 lead into the halftime locker room. Upstate was out-gunned in the opening half, as the Bruins connected on 55.6 percent from the field, and also held advantages in rebounding (14-10), free throw percentage (90 percent-69.2 percent) and forced 11 Spartan turnovers, while committing only six.

The Bruins also held a substantial advantage in points in the paint, out-scoring the Spartans 22-12 in that particular statistical category. Maybe most important of all, the Bruins had held the A-Sun's leading scorer to just five points, and he was saddled with two early fouls.

With so much in its corner, it was hard to see a way the Bruins swagger could be knocked off course in the second half by the homestanding Spartans. However, the one advantage that Upstate entered the game with--it's athleticism--ultimately helped it not only get back in the game in the second half, but would also enable the Spartans to garner arguably its biggest win as a Division member, as Upstate outscored the Bruins, 52-35 in the second stanza to come up with the 79-78 win. 

The Spartans turned the tables on the Bruins by connecting on 60.6 percent (20-for-33) of their shots in the second half, while cutting their turnovers by five in the second half, from 11 in the first, to only six in the second.

The Spartans were on a furious comeback trail from the outset of the second stanza, cutting the Bruins' advantage to 10 (43-33) from the 16-point deficit at the half, as the Spartans wasted just 87 seconds to accomplish that feat, prompting a Rick Byrd timeout.

It was transfer forward Jodd Maxey, who scored a career-high 19 points for the Spartans, that set the tone that he would maintain throughout the remainder of the game, seemingly hitting big shot after big shot to help the Spartans back into the game.

During that 6-0 run out of the locker room, it was Maxey that scored four of those points to get the once deflated Hodge Center crowd interested. Part of the aforementioned athletic advantage for the Spartans was personified in Maxey's leaping ability in the second half, as the Bruins had little answer for keeping the quick-jumping Maxey off the offensive glass. It was also a Maxey slam dunk that brought the Hodge Center crowd to a collective crescendo in the final two minutes.

The Spartans would get the game into single digits shortly thereafter, following a lay-up by Belmont forward Blake Jenkins. It was Craig, who scored only five first-half points, that made Jenkins pay as he beat him down the floor in transition and drained a wide-open triple to make it a 45-36 contest with 17:22 left to play.

It looked as if the Bruins might be ready to usurp the momentum from the Spartans moments later, as Belmont stretched its advantage back to double digits (49-36) on back-to-back baskets by Trevor Noack in transition with 16:36 left to play.

From there, however, it would be a 16-4 run by Upstate, which cut the Bruins advantage to a single point (53-52) with 12:18 to play, preventing the momentum from ever settling into hibernation on the Bruins side for the remainder of the afternoon. Craig's second trifecta of the half sparked the run.

It would be the Bruins that would seem to control the next three minutes, but despite stretching its lead back out to eight points, at 61-53, following a Kerron Johnson free throw with 9:33 to play, the Bruins could not completely put the Spartans in the rear-view mirror the rest of the way, and were never able to again establish a double-digit lead in the contest. 

The deficit would remain at eight moments later, as the two teams traded three-pointers, making the score 66-58 with just over eight minutes to play, and that would be the largest lead the Bruins would own the remainder of the game. 

An acrobatic lay-up by Johnson gave the Bruins a 70-64 advantage, as the game approached crunch time inside the final five minutes. It would be at this point, in which the Spartans took control of the game, out-scoring the Bruins 15-8 at the game's most-crucial point. Three straight buckets by Ricardo Glenn, Babatunde Olumuyiwa and Mario Blessing were part of a mini, 6-1, spurt by the Spartans, as Upstate found itself within a single point once again, at 71-70, with 3:39 left.

True to its championship pedigree, Belmont pushed back, looking to deliver the fatal blow as had become routine so many times before against A-Sun opponents. First Ian Clarke converted a lay-up, and then the sharp-shooting Mann drained a three-pointer to answer a Craig lay-up at the opposing end to give Bruins a two-possession advantage (76-72) with 2:45 play. 

Lesser opponents have folded at this point in the game plenty of times before against the Bruins, and it would have been easy for the Spartans to have patted themselves on the back and taken home a "moral victory" and chalked it up as another building block on a long drawn-out process.  That wasn't the scenario Payne's resilient Spartans chose, however. 

Upstate's tenacious defense created the most crucial of the 12 Bruin turnovers on the afternoon, and that would lead to a transition dunk for Maxey, inciting a roar in unison for the raucous, jam-packed Hodge Center crowd, cutting the Bruins' lead to a deuce (76-74) with 2:03 to play. Johnson answered on the other end with a lay-up to put the Bruins back up four (78-74) with 1:50 to play. 

Johnson's lay-in would be the final basket of the game for the Bruins, and would set the stage for Craig to score the most important five points of his young career. Following the Johnson bucket, Craig would waste little time in stepping up to make a monumental trey from straight-away just seconds later, making it a one-point deficit (78-77) with 1:33 left. 

Back-to-back missed threes by Mann and Clarke on the ensuing possession set up the last-second heroics for the Spartans. Maxey secured the basketball off the Clarke missed triple with 31 seconds left and the clock reached 14 seconds before the Spartans took a 30-second timeout to set up the final play.

The game would initially end up in the hands of guard Adrian Rogers, with Craig tightly guarded, and it was a clear-out. Rogers began to penetrate to the basket with seven seconds to play, but his shot caromed off the front of the rim, however, Craig crashed the boards and rebounded the ball and put in the baby five-foot jumper from straight-away with seven-tenths of a second to play, giving the Spartans a 79-78 lead.

Belmont tried a length-of-the-court pass, but the last-ditched Bruins heave was broken up by Glenn, setting off a wild celebration at the Hodge Center and gave the Spartans its first win over Belmont in nine tries. 

Craig scored 17 second-half points to lead four Spartans in double figures, with a game-high 22 points, while Maxey added 19, while point guard Ty Greene and Glenn chipped in 12 and 10 points respectively.

Johnson led the Bruins with 18 points, while dishing out eight assists, while veteran Mick Hedgepeth posted 16 points and seven boards in the win.

Upstate's dedication to using its superior athleticism, as a result of utilizing transition opportunities in the open court, as well as being aggressive off the dribble to force the physical Bruins into foul trouble, were two major factors in allowing Upstate to solidify itself as a major player in the A-Sun race in 2011-12 with the one-point win.  

One thing is for sure, the combination of commitment, funding and talent have found themselves in perfect concert for the Spartans in 2011-12, and Upstate will look to continue its recent run of success on Monday night against another team that hails from the Volunteer state and has been a thorn in the proverbial side of the Spartans in its short Division I tenure pays a visit to the Hodge Center on Monday night, with Lipscomb visiting the Hub City.