There’s a reason USC Upstate was picked back in the fall to finish second in the A-Sun.
On the bigger stage, the Spartans showed why.
Ty Greene got hot early and his teammates stayed pretty warm as they took control in the first half and kept it for a 76-62 win Thursday night over Jacksonville in the final men’s quarterfinal of the A-Sun tournament at Hawkins Arena.
USC Upstate improved to 16-16 and will take on Mercer at 5:30 p.m. on Friday in the first men’s semifinal. Florida Gulf Coast and Stetson will follow, and the winners play for the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament at noon on Saturday.
Jacksonville ended at 14-18, and was the first higher men’s seed of the tournament – and second overall higher seed – to lose in the quarterfinals. Torrey Craig led Upstate with 17 while Ty Greene added 14, Ricardo Glenn 12. Adrian Rodgers and Babatunde Olumuyiwa had 11 each.
“We’ve just been playing with a lot of energy,” said Craig, whose team beat East Tennessee State to end the regular season. “We know how important it is for us to win as a team.
“Having a losing season really disturbed us.”
Jarvis Haywood led Jacksonville with 16 points while Glenn Powell had 13. Javon Dawson, a junior from Crisp County, added 11 for Jacksonville.
Upstate won the first game with the Dolphins 79-64 and Jacksonville got revenge almost a month later with a 68-64 win.
Then the Dolphins lost three straight heading into the tournament. Upstate was no warmer, coming in on a 2-6 stretch.
But the Spartans didn’t play that way against the Dolphins, getting 23 more points off of turnovers and spending the game shooting better than 50 percent.
“I thought we moved the ball well,” Upstate head coach Eddie Payne said. “We defended. We did the things from a game plan perspective that were crucial to our success.”
And it was hard to tell that Upstate had lost six straight in Hawkins, five to Mercer and then to Florida Gulf Coast in last year’s conference tournament. The Spartans finished at 52.6 percent from the floor.
“We didn’t play Jacksonville basketball,” Jacksonville head coach Cliff Warren said. “We turned the ball over, which helped them get some easy baskets. We don’t typically turn the ball over that much.”
Greene made his first four shots, helping the Spartans double up the Dolphins after six minutes, 16-8.
The Spartans had more energy and won the hustle plays and appeared ready to put this one out of reach early Upstate more than doubled Jacksonville on Greene’s 3-pointer for a 28-13 lead with 9:15 left. The margin remained in that range until the Dolphins started matching the Spartans and finished the half on a 7-2 run in the final 3:21 to pull within 39-29.
Upstate shot 55.6 percent in the first half to 42.3 percent for Jacksonville, which was only 4-for-9 at the line.
Jacksonville opened the second half chilly and didn’t score until the 17:33 mark, and that only cut the deficit to 13.
Upstate continued to be quicker on both ends, but Jacksonville was able to at least trade baskets and possessions and keep the game somewhat in reach.
But Upstate was in such control that Greene went almost 17 minutes between baskets and the Spartans lost no ground.
Upstate led by double figures for the final 31 minutes, and by at least 15 for about 14 of the final 15 ½ minutes.
“We did play a very good game,” Green said. “They pride themselves in ‘outphysicaling’ the other team, and we feel like we met the challenge.”