The Spartans won the Southern Conference basketball tournament, defeating East Tennessee State 62-47 in the championship game at U.S. Cellular Center and avenging a loss in last year’s final.
Top-seeded UNCG (27-7) will be going to the NCAA tournament for the third time in program history. The previous two came in 1996 and 2001. The brackets will be announced Sunday on TBS, beginning at 6 p.m.
ETSU, the second seed, fell to 25-9 and will hang its postseason hopes on an unlikely NIT at-large bid.
“It was a hard locker room,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes said. “These guys are tight, they’re a good group of kids and they expected to win. It was hard and it should be when it really means something to you.”
Demetrius Troy and Jordy Kuiper each scored 13 points to lead UNCG. Jalan McCloud led the Bucs with 15.
ETSU was hindered by three injuries. Desonta Bradford, the SoCon’s player of the year, hurt an ankle, was limited in the second half, and finished with eight points.
Bo Hodges and David Burrell both fought through the effect of leg injuries suffered in the first half for much of the game.
ETSU’s point total was its lowest of the season.
“We battled and played hard,” Forbes said. “We have nothing to hang our heads about. We got beat by a good team, a really good team and we knew that coming in here. We played good enough on defense, we just had a really hard time scoring.”
UNCG took control when a 10-0 run in the second half turned a 28-27 ETSU lead into a 37-28 Spartans advantage.
The Bucs were in the midst of a six-minute scoreless drought when McCloud scored on an offensive rebound and a layup, cutting the deficit to 37-32, but they never managed to catch UNCG.
When James Dickey scored on back-to-back possessions down the stretch for the Spartans, they led 56-43 with 2:40 remaining.
“I always believed we could cut down the nets and get to the NCAA tournament at UNCG,” Spartans coach Wes Miller said.
It was UNCG’s second win in a row against ETSU. The Spartans had beaten the Bucs 74-56 late in the regular season, a result that ended a 16-game winning streak and stopped them from breaking the school record for consecutive victories.
That game sent the Bucs on a regular season-ending tailspin as they lost four of five. They entered the tournament on a three-game losing streak before regaining their momentum with victories over Chattanooga and Furman, setting the stage for a rematch of last year’s championship game.
UNCG’s all-conference guard Francis Alonso finished with six points, only three after making his first shot. He was still voted the tournament’s most outstanding player.
The rest of the all-tournament team consisted of Bradford and McCloud from ETSU, Demetrius Troy of UNCG and Chattanooga’s Makinde London.
The second team was Nathan Hoover and Cameron Jackson from Wofford, James Dickey from UNCG, Jordan Lyons of Furman and Zane Najdawi of The Citadel.
Bradford left the game with 16:28 left, limping badly. He had been fighting an injured ankle that kept him out of one game down the stretch. He headed to the bench to have his left ankle re-taped and returned a minute later.
Earlier, Hodges, the conference’s freshman of the year, limped off the court two minutes into the game. He was in and out of the contest, but never seemed totally healthy. Burrell also missed significant time after tweaking an ankle.
“It’s tough, but it’s no excuse,” Bradford said. “We played through it and we still had a chance to win the game.”
IN THE BIG ONE
The Bucs are 9-5 in conference tournament championship games. Monday night’s loss left them 7-4 in SoCon finals. They were 2-1 in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
BY THE NUMBERS
In last year’s championship game, the Bucs set a school record by going 19 for 19 from the foul line. They were 14 for 20 Monday night.
UNCG out-rebounded the Bucs 39-30. ETSU barely shot 30 percent from the field. The Spartans shot 38 percent.
It was either a defensive struggle or struggling offenses in the first half, depending on how you looked at it. Neither team shot better than 35 percent and neither led by more than five points.
It was fitting that the score was tied at 25 at halftime as there were five lead changes and eight ties in the first half.
That meant the champion was going to be determined over the final 20 minutes, and the Spartans pulled away.
It was probably the final game for eight ETSU seniors. In addition to Bradford, Burrell and McCloud, Peter Jurkin, Devontavius Payne, Jermaine Long, Karl Overstreet and Dillon Reppart more than likely all ended their collegiate careers on Monday night.