Friday, March 7, 2014

Mercer/USC Upstate Matchup Ripe with Leadership

Entering tonight’s A-Sun Championship Semifinal between Mercer and USC Upstate, no one expected anything but a quality contest.

And why should they? Two of the A-Sun’s most experienced teams took the floor to face each other for the second time in as many years in a semifinal, dressing 11 seniors whose impact on their teams and the A-Sun have been evident the past four years.

Combined they represent 152 wins and more than a dozen All-Conference and All-Tournament honors.

The 2014 A-Sun Player of the Year, Langston Hall, leads a group of seven Mercer seniors who continue to make their mark and extend the most successful span in Mercer program history. The Bears have won 90 games in the last four years, including three straight seasons of 20+ wins and will most certainly participate for a third consecutive season in postseason play.

Hall is clear that his recognition this season paints a clear picture of what the Bears have been able to accomplish.

“Player of the Year is special not because of me, but because of the team. You are never going to get A-Sun Player of the Year if you are on a bad team, so it just shows what a special season we have had, particularly being co-champs of the league with FGCU.”

Mercer’s impactful group includes Hall, Kevin Canevari, Bud Thomas, Anthony White Jr., Jakob Gollon, Monty Brown and Daniel Coursey. Hall, Thomas and Gollon all have scored 1,000+ points in their careers, and you have to look no further than this season and in particular Tuesday’s win against Jacksonville to see this group’s impact.

Hall tallied 10 assists against Jacksonville, tying the A-Sun career record, and became the A-Sun’s career leader in assists tonight in the first half. Thomas led the charge in the first half of Tuesday’s game, knocking down three straight three-pointers in the first half of the quarterfinal win. White joined in and tallied his career high of 29 points to lead all scorers.

Gollon was the 2014 A-Sun Scholar-Athlete of the Year, and Coursey added 2014 Defensive Player of the Year honors and sits in fourth place on the conference’s career list in blocks.
“It has been a special four years playing with these guys,” said Hall. “I love playing with them on the court and love hanging with them off the court. I think we brought something new to Mercer, playing as a team, because we didn’t always have the most talented team out there.

“We learned that as we didn’t have a good freshman year. In our sophomore year that made us come together, play more as a team and put more emphasis on defense. We had to listen to the coaching staff a lot more, because we tried to do it our way and we lost a lot of games that way. When we started doing it their way, we really started putting things together and came together as a team.”

The Bears claimed the CIT Championship in 2012, a win that still stands out in Hall’s mind.

“The CIT run that we had my sophomore year was very special,” Hall said. “For about the next year and a half, every time I would watch video of it I would get goosebumps. That was the first championship I have ever won, so it was very special.”

Last season the Bears advanced to the second round of the NIT in 2013, but a trip to the NCAA would suit Hall and his teammates.

“This group is definitely special to me, we are all going to be like brothers for the rest of our lives,” Hall added. We have made a special bond here these last four years. You never know who is going to step up each game. We have a lot of people who can go out and score 20 points, we don’t have to count on one person every night.

“Each one of the seniors is different, but we are all the same too, we all care about winning. That is the most important thing to us. We all just try to work hard outside of the game and then in the games just play as hard as we can. Jake, myself and Anthony White are the vocal leaders. And Anthony has really done a great job this year, stepping up in his play and in his leadership. That makes it much easier for me particularly.”

For USC Upstate, the senior leadership comes from Ricardo Glenn, Torrey Craig, Jodd Maxey and Babatunde Olumuyiwa. With this group the Spartans have won 61 games in the last four years, including a 21-win season in 2011-12 when Craig enjoyed A-Sun Player of the Year honors.

Craig has perennially been among the conference leaders in scoring, but he remembers when things weren’t going so well for him and the Spartans.

“It means a lot to be in this position at this point in my career, said Craig. “As a freshman we won five games, but we have gotten better every year. My sophomore year we won 20 games, and we have continued to improve as a team. It has been a journey with these guys, and I am going to miss them.”

Two years ago the Spartans also enjoyed success in the College Insider Tournament, knocking off Kent State before falling in the second round to Old Dominion. This season the Spartans picked up big non-conference wins against Virginia Tech and South Carolina, games that Maxey says are two of the biggest memories he will take away from his career in Spartanburg.

Even though the Spartans struggled early in the A-Sun season, Head Coach Eddie Payne leaned on the seniors and they responded, leading the Spartans to wins in seven of the last 10 games, including an 80-61 victory against Mercer in Spartanburg.

“Beating Mercer by 19 at home a couple of weeks ago was one of the biggest wins we have had, and for me upsetting Belmont at the buzzer was another great win and memory,” said Craig.

“As for our relationship with Coach Payne, every year he is on us.,” said Craig. “He encourages us, and finds ways to motivate us to play harder. He is an animated coach, and you can tell that he loves the game of basketball. If we lose he can’t sleep, if we win he is all energetic. I think he has rubbed off on us, because now when we have started to act like him after a win or a loss.”

For Hall, he appreciates how his relationship with Coach Bob Hoffman has changed over the course of his career.

“When I first got here he talked to me and my answer was ‘yes sir,’ and the communication was really one-way, said Hall. Now he trusts me a lot to call plays and break off plays. At times we can talk about things and I can talk back to him and he will listen to my input, whereas as a freshman he talked and I listened.”

With any good senior leadership, you would expect that they impact the younger players, and both of these groups have done just that.

“I think we set a great example for the younger guys,” says Hall. “I know when I came to college, I really didn’t know how hard you had to work. We come in every day and work hard, and come in on our off time and get in extra shots. I think that sets a really good example.”

“I would say the biggest impact that we have had on younger players is on their work ethic,” said Craig. “Staying in the summer, lifting, doing what you are supposed to do on and off the court, going to class – they follow us and take our leadership.”

It has been said that familiarity breeds contempt, but not so particularly for Hall and Craig. With mutual respect they have battled each other gallantly on the court, but off the court they have become friends and often hit each other up on Twitter. 

“I am pretty cool with Langston off the court, and we talk on social media,” said Craig. “As for the others, they seem pretty cool as well, but when you are on the court it is all business.”

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