An Unlikely Rivalry

by Ian McCormick

Thursday, February 14, 2013 (Season 9)

Game #9-390: East Tennessee State Buccaneers at South Carolina-Upstate Spartans

January 28, 2013 7:30 pm
G.B. Hodge Center

Our challenge this past week was to write about a rivalry. I have written pretty extensively on rivalries before, with certain rivalries High Point has had as well as rivalries in the Charleston area. I felt that there really was not much more in the way of rivalries I could write about among those I had seen in person. That is why I decided to contact my teammate James Squire, since I knew that he would likely have some good Valpo rivalries to talk about. And I did not know of any Valpo rivalries myself, so it would work well for the challenge. James was able to talk about old rivalries of Valapariso in the Mid-Continent Conference (now the Summit League, although some of us TMM-old timers prefer to call it the Badlands Conference). These were rivalries that were once strong that has now gone away. In the place of old rivalries arise new ones that fans a decade ago would not have seen coming. Less than ten years ago, East Tennessee State was a power in the Southern Conference and USC Upstate was in the Division II Peach Belt Conference. Who could have then seen this game becoming a big Atlantic Sun rivalry?

You can go on and on about how different East Tennessee State and USC Upstate are in members of the Atlantic Sun Conference. East Tennessee State joined the Atlantic Sun after having success in the Southern Conference, which kicked the Bucs out after ETSU dropped football. It is possible that ETSU could have gotten a waiver like College of Charleston, UNC Greensboro, and Davidson do, but after ETSU was among those who denied a waiver for VMI when the Keydets proposed dropping scholarship football the Bucs had to flee to the A-Sun. USC Upstate's entry into the Atlantic Sun came as one of many in the mid-2000s of growing commuter campuses moving into Division I, as was also the case for fellow members Kennesaw State, North Florida, and Florida Gulf Coast (and more recently Northern Kentucky). East Tennessee State is an established school that has existed as a large regional state school for 100 years with 15,000 students, three times the enrollment of USC Upstate which has only existed for 45 years. The Bucs play in a converted arena that seats 8500 and previously served as a domed stadium for the school's American-style football team before the school abandoned the program nine years ago. On the other hand, the Spartans play in a renovated recreational gym that barely seats over 800. Yet the game between these two this night in Spartanburg had grown into a rivalry. How did this happen?

One main source of the rivalry between East Tennessee State and USC Upstate is that the two schools are surprisingly close to each other. This has actually not always been the case historically either. The two schools are separated by the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina, and considering that Tennessee and South Carolina do not border each one would not think of the two schools being near each other. But with the extension of Interstate 26 north of Asheville and cutting through the peaks of the Appalachians on the North Carolina/Tennessee border, it is only about two hours from Spartanburg to Johnson City (with Asheville being around an hour from both places). And with Campbell and Gardner-Webb gone to the Big South, ETSU and Upstate are the eastern outliers of the Atlantic Sun. The proximity of these two schools and the lack of proximity to other schools is why these two schools have become travel partners in the Atlantic Sun.

But historically, there obviously has not been much of a closely contested rivalry between these two. When the Spartans arrived to Division I, ETSU won the first six meetings between the two teams quite handily. But when Torrey Craig arrived in Spartanburg, things changed. USC Upstate was able to become competitive, and East Tennessee State was the measuring stick. In Torrey Craig's first conference game as a Spartan, USC Upstate faced ETSU at the newly renovated Hodge Center with the Bucs having won the last two Atlantic Sun titles. In front of a packed Hodge Center, Craig scored 18 points and Chalmer Rogers made the winning layup with three seconds left to give USC Upstate a dramatic 60-59 upset win. It was only one of five wins for USC Upstate all season, and it happened to come over a team that won over 20 games. The next year, the Spartans were a much improved team ready to challenge ETSU for the top of the A-Sun. And once again, Torrey Craig and USC Upstate won in front of a sold out crowd as USC Upstate proved that they belonged against a program that has won nine conference tournaments between the Atlantic Sun and Southern Conferences over the last 45 years. In many ways, this rivalry reminds me of the High Point-Winthrop games I attended at HPU. It was an up-and-coming team trying to challenge the conference's proven leader. The upstarts cared the most about the rivalry, while the favorite downplay the rivalry while also really hungry for a win to stay ahead in the conference at the same time. USC Upstate has still never won in Johnson City. But the game would be in Spartanburg this evening, and USC Upstate needed another big win over ETSU.

Murray Bartow's Bucs have not had a stellar season so far. East Tennessee State entered the contest with a 6-15 record, but was 4-4 in the Atlantic Sun and only one game back of Upstate. With Belmont gone to the Ohio Valley, the Atlantic Sun race is wide open. Any one of a number of teams could win the conference. Upstate needed a win here to keep up with conference leader Florida Gulf Coast, who the Spartans lost to in a heartbreaker less than three weeks prior. Also near the top is Mercer, who could be considered the favorite as they host the Atlantic Sun Tournament. ETSU had fallen behind Belmont the last couple of years, and is still a ways from the top even with the Bruins now in the OVC. But a win here would keep them even with Upstate, and give them a decent standing in a close conference race even in a down year. Meanwhile, USC Upstate has still been trying to find momentum from last year's great season. While the Spartans are still much better than they were upon joining Division I, they have not been able to improve from last year's successful season that included a CIT berth. They needed a win to get back to where they were expected to be with Torrey Craig and his teammates who were among the core players on last year's team. Tonight's game was not quite sold out this time, and this was not a game where USC Upstate could make a big statement in the conference with a win this time. But this was still a sort of rivalry game with some at stake, so this game could not be downplayed.

The game was not until 7:30 PM because of an Upstate women's game at 5 PM against North Florida. I assumed that this was because USC Upstate was doing a promoted doubleheader with the women and men, but when I arrived it turns out this was not the actual case in a traditional sense. I was surprised to find out I needed to purchase two tickets for the two games, and as a result I retracted my plans of buying a midcourt seat for $15 and instead went with an $8 seat again at the entrance of the Hodge Center (which is still better than most seats at college basketball arenas). The women's game was a general admission ticket that also costs $8, a dollar more than Upstate's fellow USC campus in Columbia. I was told at the ticket office that the previous doubleheader I saw was only one ticket because of it being during the holidays. I can see why Upstate did that, as if the men's game sold out fans as often happens when ETSU comes to town fans would not be shut out of the women's game (and women's tickets would not take away from men's tickets either). The reason there was a women's game at 5 had more to do with scheduling logistics rather than pairing the men's and women's games together (as the MEAC does, and the A-Sun used to). The women in the A-Sun travel on a Saturday/Monday schedule, while the men travel on a Thursday/Saturday schedule (it was the reverse last year). With ETSU and Upstate travel partners, they had to find an extra day in the schedule to fit the game in between traveling. The result for the women was that the Hodge Center was nearly entirely empty except for an after school group of about 30 kids that came over from the local Boys & Girls Club. I was still happy enough to see the women's game, as I got to see a player I saw in my internship at USC Sumter practice again for the Spartans (she again did not make it into the game). I also got to check the North Florida Ospreys off the list of the closest Division I schools I have never seen play in any sport in person. But I will probably not stay for the women's game when I go back to Upstate this Saturday and instead make my way over to Wofford early after the men's game. The women's game went fast, as Upstate won fairly easily at 64-52. This helped ease the transition between the two games, as it could have been very difficult in getting fans in and out if the women's game had gone long and left less than 30 minutes between games.

The men's game was able to start on time, and the offense for both teams came out firing with the #superhoop. Ty Greene made two threes with another one by Torrey Craig to give Upstate a 9-5 lead at the first media timeout. But Greene would soon enough cool down, and Jarvis Jones would match him to put the Buccaneers ahead midway through the first half. The remainder of the first half would go back and forth, with the shots falling less consistently. ETSU would grab the halftime lead on a dunk by John Walton with less than a minute to play. Craig missed a jumper at the end of the half, and what seemed like another quality game by the Spartans against ETSU early on was no longer so late in the first half. Craig and Greene would need to get it going in the first half if Upstate was to win a third straight home game against the Bucs.

Upstate would get going again to start the second half, but not through Greene or Craig as much. It would be SC State transfer Jodd Maxey who got the Spartans going by penetrating to the basket and getting put-backs to put Upstate ahead again. And with everybody contributing, Upstate would not slow down this time. Maxey as well as Ricardo Glenn were able to dominate the paint for the Spartans as East Tennessee State's forwards were unable to counter. This freed space for Craig to catch fire from outside as Upstate got on another big run late to pull away. Four Spartans finished in double figures as USC Upstate would go on to finish a dominating second half and win 88-71. The leader for the Spartans was of course Torrey Craig, who finished with 23 points and 8 rebounds. One funny coincidence between the women's and men's games at the Hodge Center this day was that Upstate was led in scoring both games by a player whose initials were TC with a jersey number of 23 which also represented their point total for the game. Upstate's announcer had fun all day long yelling "TC FOR THREE!!!" regardless of whether it was Torrey Craig or Tee'Ara Copney. It was fun for all of USC Upstate at the Hodge Center, which had gotten a third straight win at home against a solid mid-major program.

Sadly, this big rivalry win for USC Upstate seemed to indicate more of a decline for East Tennessee State than a momentum builder for the Spartans. The Bucs have continued to struggle since this game, and are presently 8-18 and 6-7 in the conference. USC Upstate has struggled even more since then, winning their next game against Lipscomb but is now in a three game losing streak and not much above ETSU in the standings. To show progress, Upstate will likely need to win their regular season finale against the Bucs in Johnson City. The emergence of this rivalry shows how funny Our Game has been in the Atlantic Sun. East Tennessee State has sort of dropped into this rivalry while USC Upstate has risen into it. How well this carries into the future will likely depend on how well Eddie Payne and future Upstate coaches replace Torrey Craig in a couple of years and move forward. But for now, this series has become the Interstate 26 Blue Ridge Battle.


EAST TENNESSEE STATE 6-16 (4-5) -- J. Jones 8-16 2-3 19; L. Wilson 6-12 0-0 16; K. Gadsden-Gilliard 4-12 7-8 16; R. Rembert 3-8 0-0 8; J. Walton 2-4 2-3 6; H. Harris 1-2 1-2 3; P. McClain 0-3 3-4 3; M. Stramaglia 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-57 15-20 71.
SOUTH CAROLINA-UPSTATE 12-10 (6-3) -- T. Craig 7-14 3-6 23; T. Greene 3-8 4-5 13; R. Glenn 7-7 2-4 16; J. Maxey 3-5 5-8 11; M. Blessing 2-5 2-2 7; A. Rodgers 2-8 4-4 9; B. Olumuyiwa 3-4 1-2 7; R. Elam 1-1 0-0 2; F. Miller 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 28-53 21-31 88.

Three-point goals: ETSU 8-21 (J. Jones 1-5; R. Rembert 2-4; L. Wilson 4-9; P. McClain 0-1; K. Gadsden-Gilliard 1-2), SCU 11-24 (T. Craig 6-8; T. Greene 3-7; A. Rodgers 1-6; M. Blessing 1-3); Rebounds: ETSU 32 (K. Gadsden-Gilliard 11), SCU 29 (R. Glenn 8); Assists: ETSU 12 (P. McClain 4), SCU 23 (J. Maxey 5); Total Fouls -- ETSU 24, SCU 16; Fouled Out: ETSU-H. Harris; SCU-J. Maxey.

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