By Justin Mathis
SPARTANBURG, SC – After beginning Atlantic Sun play with three straight road games, the USC Upstate Spartans opened the home portion of the schedule by welcoming the Jacksonville Dolphins to Spartanburg.
It was a back and forth contest that unfolded before a sellout crowd that assembled inside the Hodge Center despite the winter weather that had passed through the area less than 48 hours prior. A pair of outstanding performances, including a career-high, helped power Upstate to a 91-85 victory over the Jacksonville Dolphins.
Both teams showed early on that they were not afraid to push the tempo, which resulted in numerous fast break opportunities. The uptick in tempo also had its’ downside as well, to the tune of 16 combined turnovers through 20 minutes of action.
Jacksonville opened the contest by scoring the first six points and held an 8-2 lead over Upstate less than four minutes in. After the Spartans tied the game at eight, the two clubs traded a pair of single digit runs, which put Upstate ahead 15-14 just past the halfway point of the first half.
Jacksonville outscored Upstate 18-17 during the last nine minutes-plus of the half. The Dolphins looked poised to take a three point lead into the halftime break, but Ramel Thompkins knocked down a three from the wing just before time ran out to knot the game up at 34.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” Jacksonville head coach Tony Jasick said. “You have to give (Upstate) credit. I think they’re a good team and I think their best basketball is ahead of them. We did not achieve many, if any, of our goals on the defensive end tonight. I thought we had some easy baskets early and we got extremely casual and took the game for granted. We’ve got to guard, play with some energy. We’ve got to have some discipline on the defensive end and not stare at the basketball. We’ve got to grow from this.”
The second stanza was much like the first half with a quick tempo, but also featured 11 lead changes, as well as eight ties.
Upstate guard Deion Holmes broke the seal on the second stanza with five of the first seven points for the Spartans in the period. A layup from Holmes and a jumper from Avery Diggs put Upstate ahead 39-36 a little over two minutes into the frame.
“I was just taking what the defense gave me,” Holmes stated. “If I had a jump shot, I had it. If they gave me drive, I took it. I’ve been trying to get defensive rebounds, push the ball in transition, and not only score, but try to look for my teammates for open shots.”
The junior from Chesnee finished with a career-high 28 points on a career-best 11-for-19 shooting performance from the field. Holmes also pulled in nine rebounds, one shy of notching a double-double.
A free throw from Jacksonville’s J.D Notae tied the game at 68 heading into the under-eight timeout. Coming out of the break, the Spartans uncorked a 15-5 run, sparked by eight points from Upstate’s Mike Cunningham, to build an 83-73 advantage with 4:03 to play.
“It was a back and forth defensive battle,” Cunningham said. “I felt like I could shoot the ball very well (tonight), so it seemed like (Jacksonville) was playing off of me. If they were playing off of me, I was taught to just shoot the ball and let it ride, and the shots were going in. There hasn’t been a lot of teams to win in the conference on the road yet, so it feels good that we were able to come back home and defend our home court.”
Jacksonville cut the deficit to single digits three times in the last three minutes and 23 seconds of game action, including an 88-85 game with 51 seconds remaining, but Cunningham knocked down another shot from long range on the Spartans’ next trip down the floor to seal the win.
“We’ve played really well at home,” Upstate head coach Kyle Perry said. “The crowd was great and I’m really appreciative of that. They were really into (the game), they were fired up, and that helped. Mike and Deion played unbelievable – they made big shots continuously throughout the game. There was probably a couple (of shots) where I was like ‘No, no, no’, but you’ve got to let them keep playing. I just couldn’t be more proud of a group of kids… They‘ve never laid down, they’ve never quit, and I really appreciate that with this group.”
Mike Cunningham finished with 26 points for Upstate, followed by 13 points from Malik Moore. Jace Hogan paced the Dolphins with 19 points, followed by Devin Harris, Jalyn Hinton, and Cody Helgeland, who all tallied 16 point apiece.
The 91 points scored marks a season-high for Upstate and the first time that the Spartans have crossed the 90 point mark in a game since January 21st, 2017 in a 97-86 win at Stetson.
Upstate (6-15, 1-3 A-Sun) will host North Florida on Saturday, January 20th at 2 PM on “Eddie Payne Appreciation Day”, where the Spartans will honor their former head coach, who stepped down and retired before the start of the season, including a halftime ceremony.
Jacksonville (9-12, 3-1 A-Sun) will make the long trip up north to take on the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders on Saturday at 4 PM.