Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Day in the Sun (Recap of North Florida v. USC Upstate)

When I was reviewing the college basketball schedule Saturday morning, I had a pick of several games in the local South Carolina/North Carolina border area to choose from.   Winthrop, Furman, Davidson, Charleston Southern and the Citadel were all playing at home.  But so was USC Upstate, a team I had seen rally to knock off their big brother the University of South Carolina in December.   So, my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew and I made the ninety minute drive up to Spartanburg to see the Spartans host the Ospreys of North Florida.  This would be my first ever in person Atlantic Sun conference game.

The Atlantic Sun Conference was formed in 1978.   It's a non football conference, but plays twenty different sports; nine men's sports, including college basketball and eleven women's sports.  Since 1979, they have had a college basketball conference tournament except for the 1992-93 season.   Their past members include Central Florida, the College of Charleston, Georgia State and perhaps, from a college basketball sense, their most famous past member was Belmont, who won five A-Sun tournaments.   Belmont left the Atlantic Sun in 2012 to join the Ohio Valley.   The tournament plays at campus sites, with the highest seeds hosting throughout the tournament.

The Atlantic Sun, just like a lot of other mid major conferences is in a state of flux.  Charter member Mercer, the only original A-Sun member left in the conference, is leaving for the Southern Conference after this season.  Likewise, East Tennessee State, a member since 2005, is also becoming a member of the Southern Conference after the season. ETSU was previously a member of the SoCon and had left the SoCon to join the Atlantic Sun.  After this season, the A-Sun will be down to eight member schools.

The Atlantic Sun has had a few players who made the NBA; Sam Mitchell of Mercer and Calvin Natt of Northeast Louisiana, were both A-Sun Tournament MVPs.   Most recently, the A-Sun's claim to fame is that one of their members, Florida Gulf Coast, aka "Florida Dunk City", made the Sweet Sixteen in last year's NCAA Tournament.

For the most part, the Atlantic Sun school members play in small gyms and arenas.  FGCU averages over 4000 per game, by far the most of any conference member.  Mercer and ETSU are the only two other schools that average over 2000 per game (both average over 2400 per game) and as noted, both those schools are leaving.   Two schools, Stetson and USC Upstate do not even average 700 fans per game.   For comparison's sake, they are the Southeast version of the Northeast Conference, though on average, the A-Sun averages 500 more fans per conference home game than the NEC (1783 to 1207).

Part of the reason that the Spartans do not average that many fans is that their home court, the Hodge Center only seats 818.  The Hodge Center was opened in 1973, but has been remodeled recently with all seat back chairs, a very nice new court floor and two video scoreboards on each end.  Based on the Spartans' team color of green, the Hodge Center reminds me of a smaller version of Wagner's Spiro Sports Center, which seats 2100.

As I noted, the Spartans had a big road win over the Gamecocks, their first ever win over the University of South Carolina in basketball.  USC Upstate also had a big road win at Virginia Tech.   Despite the impressive non conference wins, the Spartans have struggled in the A-Sun, entering their contest with the Ospreys with a 3-4 record in conference.  One of their losses was to Kennesaw State, which was the Owls only win in conference and their only win in their last fourteen games.

North Florida entered the contest with a 5-3 record in conference and an 11-9 record overall.  The Ospreys started off the season with a tough eight point loss at Florida.  In their most recent game, North Florida lost to ETSU by six.  Their leading scorer, Dallas Moore, averages twelve plus points per game.

The game was being shown on ESPN3 and it was also 70's day at the Hodge Center as many students dressed up as much as they could in 70's fashion.  The USC Upstate Cheerleaders were in tie dye shirts.  The Spartans came out onto the floor to the song "War" by Edwin Starr and despite the anti war lyrics, it's actually a great song to get the fan base pumped for the game.  Well, at least I was pumped.

The game started out with the Ospreys, the highest scoring team in the A-Sun in conference play at seventy eight points per game, struggling from the field.  North Florida only hit on one of their first eleven shots.  However USC Upstate couldn't take advantage, going scoreless for more than three and a half minutes early on in the game.   Moore buried a three pointer to cut the Spartans lead to 10-8 with a little under thirteen minutes left in the half.

But led by Fred Miller, the Spartans responded with a 16-4 run over the span of four and a half minutes.  It started with a hard flagrant one foul by Romeo Banks on Spartans' leading scorer Torrey Craig, who was going in for a fast break dunk attempt off a turnover.   Craig came crashing down hard on his bank and had to be helped off the court.  Miller hit the two free throws to put the Spartans up 12-8.   Later, Miller made an old fashioned three point play off a layup and one, then hit another layup to put the Spartans up 21-10.  Craig would come back into the game and made his presence known with a three pointer to cap the run and give USC Upstate a 26-12 lead.

The Ospreys would respond with a 7-0 mini spurt to cut the lead in half.   Moore hit two free throws to cap the spurt and the Spartans were only up seven, 28-21 with a little less than five minutes remaining in the half. Right before the half, an offensive foul was called on Ricardo Glenn for swinging his elbows while trying to execute a post move on an Osprey defender. The referees reviewed the replay and properly called a flagrant one, much to the dismay of the Spartans' fans.  USC Upstate would extend the lead back to double digits as they entered the half up 36-25.

During the half, my friend, Ian McCormick, who I consider the Jaden Daly of South Carolina Hoops, joined us at our seats.  When we got onto a discussion about the new NCAA foul rules, Ian, who keeps an extensive spreadsheet of all the games he attends (click on the "Basketball games" tab), noted that he has seen on average an increase of ten foul shots per game as opposed to last year.  Based on what I said earlier in the season, that will soon be an article for another day.

One team came out strong starting the second half and it was not the highest scoring team in A-Sun conference play.  The Spartans jumped on the Ospreys with a 14-5 spurt over the span of three and half minutes.  Craig and Ricardo Glenn, who had a double double in the win over South Carolina, each scored four points.   Ty Greene capped the run with a three pointer and USC Upstate had a commanding 49-30 lead.

Despite it only being about thirty seconds before the Under 16 media timeout,North Florida Head Coach Matthew Driscoll, desperate to try to stem the tide, called timeout which gave the Ospreys only one timeout remaining the rest of the game.  It didn't help much as the Spartans still had an eighteen point lead three minutes later.

During the Under 16 Media Timeout, a local restaurant chain, the Mellow Mushroom, had a promotion where if a student hit a half court shot, they would win a $50 gift card.  As Mark Buerger, a Lexington, Kentucky sports talk show host properly noted to me later on a reply tweet, they should have given her a free throw attempt for that kind of money, not a half court shot.  She made a good attempt, but she missed.

It took North Florida a little while, but they finally made a run on USC Upstate, outscoring them 10-1 over the span of four minutes.  A Moore jumper cut the lead to nine, 54-45 with nine and a half minutes left in the game.  But the Spartans would score the next four points to put the Spartans back up again by double digits.

North Florida would get no closer the rest of the way and USC Upstate would win convincingly, 71-60.  The Spartans held the A-Sun's highest scoring team in conference play to eighteen points under their average.   The Ospreys only shot thirty three percent from the field, including twenty five percent from two point field goal range.

Glenn led the way with a double double, sixteen points and eleven rebounds. Greene also had sixteen points, Craig added fifteen and Miller added eleven points off the bench.  The Ospreys shot nearly forty six percent from the field and had thirteen steals on the game.

Moore led all scorers with eighteen points.  Jalen Nesbitt came off the bench to add twelve points, but no other Ospreys scored in double figures.  The sixty points scored was the third lowest the Ospreys had been held to all season and the lowest in A-Sun conference play.  It shouldn't have come as much a surprise, given USC Upstate was second in the Atlantic Sun in field goal percentage defense at forty percent.

After the game, we walked out with Ian.  Ian was heading up to Davidson, which was not far from where we were in Spartanburg.  Much as I wanted to join him, Matthew wanted to get back home so we could go join my wife and younger son in seeing the movie "The Nut Job", which the kids had fun watching last night.

Ian had told me earlier this season to catch a game at USC Upstate.  After thoroughly enjoying myself in the cozy confines of the Hodge Center, I came away impressed.  As I noted, it reminds me a lot of the Spiro Center and other small NEC and America East gyms I have attended, but with some nice touches like seat backs.

Rest assured, I will definitely attend another game at the Hodge Center in the near future.

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