Monday night was a great example of what makes conference tournament basketball so much fun.
Winner would go to the NCAA tournament. Loser would go home.
Both schools had campuses located within an hour of the tournament site. So it was easy to drive in for the final, and thousands of students did. You could show up at the last minute and buy a ticket for 20 bucks.
We had all of that Monday night in the Southern Conference final, as Wofford edged Western Carolina, 56-53, in a game full of the sort of frantic desperation that the one-bid, mid-major leagues are stuffed with this time of year.
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It was March misery for Western Carolina, March merriment for Wofford and a memorable final even if you weren’t from Cullowhee or Spartanburg and didn’t care a bit who won.
When the ACC tournament starts later this week, the quality of basketball will be better. The atmosphere will not crackle with the same intensity.
The ACC’s top four seeds all know they are already in the NCAA field. They are playing for pride and a trophy, yes, but ultimately not much else. The big tournament starts in two weeks for the big dogs.
In the Southern Conference, though, and all the one-bid leagues like it, everything is at stake in the conference tournament. The Wofford student swarm that overwhelmed the court following the final – you’re just not going to see that Sunday in Greensboro.
“Best feeling in the world!” proclaimed Wofford forward Lee Skinner.
“There’s nothing like it,” said Wofford coach Mike Young, whose team has won this tournament three times in the past five years. “The journey. The culmination. It’s not always ice cream and rainbows. ... But this is the magic carpet ride.”
On the other hand, you can see the desperation that lines these sorts of tournaments most starkly in the moments after the game, when dreams have just been snuffed out. Western Carolina lost in the SoCon final by three points or fewer for the second time in three years. Its players all looked alone in a crowd when the game ended.
Elon coach Matt Matheny said after losing Saturday that tournament basketball of this type was like “a dagger to your heart.” Davidson coach Bob McKillop literally appeared to have deflated when the Wildcats had lost to WCU Sunday, 99-97, in overtime.
March is a cruel, capricious month. Its weather swings can derail the best-laid plans. It is the month America sets aside for hoops, but for every story of a championship season there are dozens of stories of heartache.
Wofford and Western Carolina both played Monday night with their hearts on their jerseys, intent on making sure they were the ones to snare the elusive NCAA bid that Davidson had grabbed in 2012 and 2013. The U.S. Cellular Center erupted with every made basket, as a crowd of 5,799 – split evenly between the schools – yelled as if their teams’ NCAA tournament life depended upon it. Which it did.
It was a low-scoring game. The shooters were tight. The defense was incessant. There was a player launching himself onto the floor in pursuit of a loose ball about every 45 seconds.
Wofford had a drama-free road to the final, winning one game by 14 points and one by 17. Western Carolina had walked the tightrope, coming back from significant second-half deficits against both Elon and Davidson.
This time Wofford had its hands full. Wofford led most of the game, but the Catamounts’ Brandon Boggs hit a three-pointer to cut Wofford’s lead to 54-53 with 6.3 seconds left.
Karl Cochran hit two free throws for Wofford with 5.3 seconds left. Western Carolina’s Trey Sumler had a decent look at a potential game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer. But it rimmed out and Wofford had won.
Wofford’s students stormed the court then, despite being told by the P.A. man numerous times in the waning seconds that such an act would be “subject to arrest.”
But no one was arresting anybody Monday night. That threat was empty – but the electric basketball game that occurred before it was very real.