Andrew Salmon and Brayden Stamps
Sports Editor and Staff Writer
Three days after a Francis Alonso overtime three sealed the game against Western Carolina, it was sophomore Isaiah Miller who played hero on Senior Day against East Tennessee State.
The Catamounts (7-23, 4-13 in SoCon) have had a rough season, but marched into the Coliseum with a chip on their shoulders. They played scrappy, physical basketball and gave a normally-suffocating UNCG defense fits all night long.
After UNCG stretched out the lead late in the first half, a quick WCU run tied the game at 41. UNCG responded with a 5-0 spurt over 11 seconds, courtesy of Isaiah Miller. Miller caught a lob from Demetrius Troy then immediately stole the ball on the other end and converted an and-one layup.
Western Carolina battled back and the teams exchanged leads. The Catamounts eventually pushed their lead to 62-58 with under three minutes left. Facing the prospect of losing a third game in a row, Francis Alonso stepped up in the clutch, scoring seven of UNCG’s last nine regulation points. None of his shots were colder than the pair of free throws he made with five seconds left to seemingly seal the 67-64 win for the Spartans.
The Catamounts, however, were not done. Western Carolina guard Matt Halvorsen banked in a half-court heave at the buzzer that left the Coliseum in stunned silence, sending the game into overtime.
21 seconds left in overtime, Holverson bailed the Catamounts out again, this time with a three from the top of the key to knot it up at 76, forcing a Wes Miller timeout. Holverson scored all of his 15 points in the second half and overtime after shooting 0-7 in the opening 20 minutes.
The score now tied, the stage was set for a miracle at the Coliseum. The crowd rose to its feet, and UNCG called one of its most effective plays: a pick-and-pop for an Alonso three. UNCG ran it perfectly. Alonso got free on the wing, received the pass and swished the three with 5.0 seconds left for his 28th point. WCU could not mount another response and the final horn sounded.
UNCG wins, 79-76.
After the chaotic game, Wes Miller had a moment to reflect on what Alonso offers in those clutch moments.
“He has never been afraid of anyone, whether we are in Rupp Arena in front of 20,000, in the SoCon tournament or in big games in conference play. He is never afraid of the moment.”
On Sunday came Senior Day for the winningest class in program history. Seniors Alonso, Troy, Lloyd Burgess and a host of graduating managers, cheerleaders and dancers were honored prior to tipoff. Burgess made his second career start and played the opening two minutes.
In town were the East Tennessee State Buccaneers (22-8, 12-5 in SoCon). The Coliseum was rocking, with 6021 in attendance, good for the largest of the season across the entire Southern Conference. The game itself was a sloppy, ugly slugfest, with UNCG shooting 37 percent and ETSU hitting just 3-15 from deep while shooting 43 percent overall. ETSU’s Jeromy Rodriguez dominated the paint, scoring 16 points and grabbing 18 rebounds, while Miller finished with 13 for UNCG.
Troy got going early, scoring eight of the Spartans’ first fourteen points. A smooth Alonso layup raised UNCG’s lead to 24-17 with 8:21 left in the half, but a nearly four-minute scoring drought let ETSU claw back to within three. Despite star guard Bo Hodges sitting due to foul trouble, an ensuing 8-0 ETSU run left the Spartans with a 35-34 lead at the break.
The Buccaneers quickly took the lead thanks to UNCG’s poor shooting and Rodriguez’s paint dominance, stretching it to 50-45 with under 11 minutes to go. The Spartans chipped away over the next eight minutes and found themselves trailing 56-54 with 2:47 to go. Alonso was due for a one-and-one, but the usually-automatic guard missed the front end.
UNCG came up with a stop and James Dickey followed with a massive putback dunk that sent the Coliseum into a frenzy and tied the game. Rodriguez retook the lead for the Bucs, making one of two free throws before Miller nailed a jumper to go up 58-57.
ETSU made two big free throws to go back up by one with 15 seconds left. For the second consecutive game, the stage was set for a thrilling finish at the Coliseum. It was Miller who answered the call, driving into the lane and spinning around his defender to bank it off the glass with 3.8 seconds left. Alonso stole the inbounds pass and UNCG pulled out a victory on Senior Day, 60-59.
For this senior class, it was a fitting end to a thrilling four years at the Coliseum. UNCG Basketball was dead in the water when they arrived—it was this class that brought it back to life. They’ll be remembered forever around these parts because of that.