ASHEVILLE N.C. – Four years ago, in 2014, when UNCG’s now-accomplished class of seniors were just freshmen, UNCG went 11-22. Losses included a 23-point home defeat vs the Tar Heels, and season sweeps at the hands of both East Tennessee State University and Wofford. The season ended with an 18-point thrashing at the hands of the Wofford Terriers
How fitting it is then that UNCG marched past Wofford 56-55 in the SoCon Tournament semi-final and then pulled away from ETSU 62-47 in the final to earn their first NCAA Tournament berth in the Wes Miller era. UNCG is now 27-7. Without a doubt, we are currently enjoying the best season in UNCG Men’s Basketball history.
The road there was not easy. Even with a first round bye, the Spartans had to win three hard-fought games in three days.
Play at the U.S. Cellular Center in downtown Asheville got underway in the quarterfinals, which pitted a pesky Citadel team against the Spartans in a noon Saturday matchup. The Citadel threw all kinds of defensive looks at the Spartans, and the Blue and Gold looked flummoxed early, owning only a one-point lead at halftime.
Coach Miller made some crucial adjustments at halftime, and the Spartans ultimately pulled away from the Bulldogs, 72-58. Demetrius Troy netted 14 points, and James Dickey finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
The Spartans had an approximately 24-hour turnaround between games before their Sunday meeting vs Wofford, led by SoCon Player of the Year Fletcher Magee.
Even 15 minutes before tipoff, the atmosphere was electric in the U.S. Cellular Center. Hundreds, if not thousands, of UNCG faithful had made the trip to Asheville. A sizable and rowdy student section gathered beneath UNCG’s basket, fifteen feet from the court, waving navy flags and signs addressed to players.
The matchup was the game of the tournament, featuring eight ties and ten lead changes. All afternoon, the teams largely kept within one possession of each other until Magee hit a pair of tough threes midway through the second half to give Wofford a 40-34 lead. That was when UNCG locked in.
Both teams struggled offensively, as UNCG shot 36 percent and Wofford shot 34 percent, but UNCG got a number of timely defensive stops and would outscore the Terriers 15-2 over the next seven minutes. With UNCG leading 49-42 with 5:32 left, the Terriers went on a run of their own and ultimately held a 55-53 lead with less than 30 seconds left in the game, with UNCG holding possession of the ball.
After a Wes Miller timeout, Francis Alonso stepped into a clutch, guarded, NBA-range three pointer and scorched the net. The crowd exploded, absolutely exploded. 56-55, UNCG. 19 seconds left.
The Spartans had the lead, but now they would have to play defense if they wanted to advance. Magee got two decent looks, and Storm Murphy’s potential buzzerbeater rimmed out. Marvin Smith grabbed the rebound and hurled it victoriously into the air. UNCG moved on, 56-55.
On the other side of the bracket, ETSU cruised by Furman 63-52 after falling to the Paladins in their regular season finale two weeks ago, setting a rematch for last year’s SoCon final. ETSU won that game 79-74, leaving UNCG one game shy of the NCAA Tournament.
UNCG would not be denied this year. The Spartans jumped out to an early 8-3 lead behind threes from Alonso and Demetrius Troy. The Buccaneers fought back and swapped leads with UNCG for most of the first half, taking a 25-25 halftime score into the locker room.
Early in the second half, fifth year senior Jordy Kuiper connected on two straight threes to open up a 33-28 lead, and the Spartans never looked back. Dickey asserted himself in the paint, scoring nine points and blocking two shots in the second half, and the suffocating UNCG defense settled in. ETSU shot just 27 percent in the second half.
UNCG converted at the free throw line late, converting 14 out of 18 attempts in the second half. A Demetrius Troy three with 1:38 left pushed the UNCG lead to 13. It was the dagger, and everyone in the arena knew it. Spartans jumped and screamed and hugged one another. Some cried.
After the final buzzer sounded, a tearful Francis Alonso tracked down teammates and embraced them. Malik Massey danced. And Jordy Kuiper, grinding toward this moment for five long years, placed his hands atop his head, stepped away from his teammates, closed his eyes and soaked it all in.
Who could blame him?
This will be UNCG’s third NCAA Tournament appearance in school history, and its first since 2001.