Beyond The Scoreboard: Wofford upset of Tar Heels shows strength of SoCon

Wofford's Derrick Brooks (1) leads the cheers from the bench as the team celebrates a lead over North Carolina during the final minute of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017, in Chapel Hill, N.C. (Robert Willett/The Herald-Sun via AP)

The Southern Conference Basketball Tournament doesn’t come to Asheville until March 1-5 at U.S. Cellular Center, but some recent play by several teams suggest this could be one of the best and most competitive events in recent history.

Wofford’s 79-75 win at No. 5 North Carolina on Wednesday night shocked many, but not those who have been paying attention to the quality play of some SoCon teams this season.

The Terriers’ first career win over a Top 25 team (snapping a 22-game losing streak) capped an incredible few days in which several SoCon teams showed they could play with the best teams in the country.

On the same night as Wofford’s big win, Furman put a scare into No. 21 at Tennessee. The Paladins (9-4) were tied with the Volunteers at 61-61 with two minutes left at Knoxville before dropping a 66-61 decision.

The night before, Mercer (6-6) scored the last seven points of the game and missed a shot at the buzzer before losing 80-79 at Alabama.

Last week, UNC Greensboro (8-4) knocked off N.C. State 81-76, the same Wolfpack team that defeated then No. 2 Arizona earlier this season.

And East Tennessee State (6-4) came within a whisker of pulling off an upset on the Wofford over the Tar Heels scale.

The Buccaneers, the defending SoCon tourney champions who put on a show in Asheville last March, held a 22-point second-half lead at No. 10 Xavier before losing 68-66 on a shot in the final seconds.

Wofford’s win was its second against the ACC this season – the Terriers knocked off Georgia Tech 63-60 earlier this month.

But snapping the Tar Heels’ 23-game home winning streak at the Dean Dome was much bigger.

“(The players) feel like they won the Super Bowl,” said veteran coach Mike Young, doused in a drenched shirt after a Gatorade shower celebration. “And maybe they did.”

Guard Fletcher Magee, the nation’s second-leading scorer at 24 points per game, scored 27 to key the upset. Teammate Cameron Jackson had a monster game inside (18 points, nine rebounds, six blocks) against a much bigger front line.

"I think a big part of it is when you come in here and you see all the banners and history, you better believe that you can play and compete, fight on the glass and do the things necessary to win a basketball game," said Young.

“We did that tonight. We had a lot of great performances from a number of people. We had a lot of guys play well, and I am awfully proud of them."

North Carolina coach and Asheville native Roy Williams said before the game he was “scared to death” of Wofford.

Turns out his fears were warranted.

Any angry Williams said afterward that he warned his players not to take the Terriers lightly but didn’t get his message across.

“You can’t come out and play like prima donnas and just think you can just show up and win,” Williams fumed.

“That team out-worked us. We got a big win on Sunday (at Tennessee) and we’re fat and happy and think things are just going to be so easy for us.”

Coaches from around the country are aware of the SoCon’s talent and depth. In the latest CollegeInsider.com’s coaches poll of the Top 25 mid-majors, Furman is No. 12 and Greensboro is 17.

ETSU, Mercer and Wofford all got votes in the poll.

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Interestingly, UNC Asheville has had success against two of the SoCon teams that recently slayed ACC giants. The Bulldogs (7-5) beat Wofford 85-65 earlier this season and knocked off UNC Greensboro 67-60 on the road Tuesday night.

And the women are getting in on the act as well.

SoCon power Chattanooga (8-4) has four wins over Power 5 schools this season, beating SEC schools Florida and Auburn and Big Ten opponents Northwestern and Indiana.

SoCon teams are wrapping up non-conference play over the next week or so, and league play begins Dec. 30.

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