Men’s Basketball Sees SoCon Tournament Title Hopes Dashed As Rally Falls Short
ASHEVILLE, N.C. – The UNCG men’s basketball team rallied from 10-points down in the final two minutes and had a chance to tie the game with less than five seconds remaining, but a three-point attempt from sophomore Francis Alonso (Malaga, Spain/Cushing Academy) rolled off the rim and out as the Spartans suffered a 79-74 loss to East Tennessee State Monday night in the Southern Conference Tournament Finals at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville.
“I was proud of our guys tonight,” head coach Wes Miller said. “We were down by 12 (points), and they came back and we had a chance to tie it with 2 1/2 seconds left. That just shows the fight of this team. I really hurt for our kids right now, for our seniors most of all. I hurt for Diante and R.J. I told (the team) in the locker room, I wish there was something I could do or say to make it better. This one really hurts. It’s going to hurt forever.”
Despite the loss, the Spartans earned the automatic bid into the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) as the SoCon’s regular season champion and No. 1 seed. The NIT Selection Show will air March 12 at 8:30 p.m. on ESPNU, announcing the 32-team field. The NIT appearance will be the second appearance all-time for UNCG and its first since 2002. ETSU earns the SoCon’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament with its win Monday. The Spartans fall to 25-9 overall on the season and see their program-record nine-game winning streak come to an end.
“We’re not done playing yet,” senior center R.J. White said. “We’ve still got the NIT. This one hurts, but we can’t let that take away from the special season we’ve had.”
Alonso led three Spartans in double figures in the loss, scoring a career-high 28 points in 35 minutes. Alonso was 7-of-17 from the field, 5-of-12 from 3-point land and 9-of-11 from the free throw line. Senior center R.J. White (Frisco, Texas/Frisco) added 23 points and six rebounds before fouling out after 34 minutes. White connected on 8-of-13 from the field and 6-of-8 from the free throw line. Senior guard Diante Baldwin (Greensboro, N.C./High Point Christian) added 12 points in the loss.
“These seniors have changed our program,” Miller said. “They’ve changed the standard that we expect in our program. They’ve changed the culture. And they’re family to me. I love them, just like they were my own blood.”
UNCG finished the night shooting 41 percent (25-of-61) from the field, but hit just 37.1 percent (13-of-35) in the second half when ETSU out-scored the Spartans 48-36. The Spartans connected on 36 percent (9-of-25) from 3-point land and 78.9 percent (15-of-19) from the charity stripe. UNCG was out-rebounded for the first time in the SoCon Tournament, losing the battle on the glass 32-27.
ETSU (27-7) had four players in double figures and connected on a perfect 19-of-19 from the free throw line in the victory. T.J. Cromer led the team with 23 points as he was 11-of-11 from the free throw line. A.J. Merriweather scored 13 points, while Tevin Glass and Hanner Mosquera-Perea each chipped in 12 points. The Buccaneers finished the night shooting 52.8 percent (28-of-53) from the field, including 59.3 percent (16-of-27) in the second half. ETSU hit 4-of-6 from 3-point in the second half after missing all four of its long-range attempts in the opening half.
The Spartans came out of the gate and opened to a 14-6 run early in the game as Baldwin and Alonso each hit back-to-back 3-pointers. Alonso started to heat up from the outside, hitting consecutive 3-pointers to give UNCG a 29-23 lead with 5:27 remaining. The Buccaneers pulled within two at 31-29 on a Desonta Bradford layup but UNCG closed the half on a 7-2 run as White scored four straight to take a 38-31 lead into the locker room.
ETSU came out of the break and quickly pulled even at 46-46 with a 15-8 start to the half with Jermaine Long hitting the Bucs’ first 3-pointer of the night to tie the game up. The teams went back-and-forth with UNCG taking a 50-48 lead on a layup from redshirt freshman forward James Dickey (Raleigh, N.C./Word of God) with 14:02 remaining.
The Buccaneers responded with an 18-4 run to take a 66-54 lead with 7:39 left in the game. David Burrell gave ETSU the lead for good with a 3-pointer before Merriweather scored seven straight points and Long hit free throws to extend the lead to 12 points.
ETSU held a 75-65 lead with 2:03 remaining when Cromer hit a pair of free throws, setting the stage for the Spartans’ furious finish. White started the run by hitting a 3-pointer before the Spartans’ defense came up with a top with 47 seconds remaining. Alonso hit another 3-pointer with 40 seconds left to make it a 75-71 contest.
Cromer hit a pair of free throws with 32 seconds left in the game to run the lead to 77-71. Junior forward Jordy Kuiper (Groningen, Netherlands/Canaries Basketball Academy) hit a fade-away 3-pointer with 12 seconds remaining to make it a one-possession game. The Spartans swarmed Merriweather on the inbound and Baldwin came up with a steal with eight seconds remaining. He got the ball to Alonso on the wing and his 3-pointer with five seconds left was on the mark but rimmed out and ETSU got the rebound to seal the victory.
-- UNCG --