Wofford basketball is in uncharted territory and couldn't be happier about it..
The Terriers, who began NCAA Division I play in 1995 after a long history in NAIA and a brief stint in Division II, made their first NCAA Tournament appearance a reality Monday night with a 56-51 win over Appalachian State in the Southern Conference finals.
This is not Butler or Gonzaga or even Davidson or some other mid-major power. This is Wofford College, which long sat on the outskirts of a Spartanburg, S.C. textile-mill village – a 20-minute drive from Greenville and an 80-minute drive down I-85 from Charlotte. Its student population, of which I was once a proud member, is less than 1,500.
It is a “football school,” but more well known for producing some of the South’s most amazing doctors, brilliant attorneys and leaders in business, education and religion. Rival Furman has Frank Selvy, a former first-overall NBA Draft pick in 1954 who once scored 100 points for the Paladins against Newberry, to hang its hat on.
Wofford produced ESPN reporter Wendi Nix and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.
So, Monday night’s game was described by onlookers as the “biggest athletic contest in school history.” That was an apt description -- at least until the beginning of the NCAA Tournament and Wofford takes the court, probably as a 13 or 14 seed and as the Southern Conference regular-season and tournament champions.
Wofford (26-8) earned its way here, taking the bruises dealt to a fledgling D-I program in the 1990s and somewhat handcuffed by tough admission standards.
Head coach Mike Young has been at the helm for most of that time and rightly built the team around team defense and a methodical half-court offense. This season, the Terriers beat South Carolina and Georgia and played both Pitt and Michigan State tough on the road.
The basketball adage is that defense always shows up, even when shooters don’t and that was never more evident than in Monday night’s title game.
Appalachian State went down by 18 points in the first half and would be held to 26 points below its season average of 77 points per game. When the Mountaineers’ defense showed up in the second half and a few 3-pointers started to fall, the Terriers had just enough to hold on.
I received a note from good friend and colleague Conrad Brunner at Pacers.com, who is also a Southern Conference fan and Georgia Southern grad, Monday morning, saying that Wofford would beat Appalachian State, “go on to win a first-round game and become the darlings of the Tournament.”
There was a time when I’d be waiting for the punchline.
But not this time, not this year.
I believe that can happen – and not just with my biased, black-and-gold heart.