Men's Basketball

The making of a champion: Behind the scenes of Wofford’s run to the NCAA Tournament

It is almost 10 p.m. on Friday, March 8 at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Asheville, and Wofford basketball coach Mike Young is sitting in the back of the hotel’s ballroom with tears streaming down his face.

The Terriers’ Southern Conference Tournament opener against VMI is about 14 hours away, and the team has just finished 45 minutes worth of film study.

But before heading to bed, there is one final video to watch, Wofford assistant Jay McAuley announces.

With the lights dim and all eyes locked in on the projector screen, a highlight video of past Wofford conference tournament championship teams plays.

In between big plays and wild victory celebrations from Wofford’s four previous SoCon tournament titles, former Terriers players Cameron Rundles, Brad Loesing, Eric Garcia, John Swinton and Lee Skinner, speak to this year’s team.

They reminisce about their time at Wofford and what it was like to play for the Terriers. All five players won the Southern Conference Tournament at least once and were a part of teams that reached the NCAA Tournament. The message is consistent from each player: There’s nothing like the joy of playing college basketball together, and they would give anything to be in the position this team is in, to be able to suit up one more time.

As the video plays, Young looks on and cries.

The video ends and players are clearly moved. Senior leader Matthew Pegram is fired up — ‘Let’s go get this!’ — as Young instructs his players to head to bed.

Wofford, the small liberal arts school in Spartanburg, is in the middle of a historic regular season that included a perfect 18-0 record in conference play. The Terriers enter the SoCon tournament having not lost a game since Dec. 19 at Mississippi State and with a No. 14 NET ranking, a main tool the NCAA Tournament committee uses to evaluate teams.

The State spent 24 hours with Wofford’s basketball team at the Southern Conference Tournament, beginning on Friday afternoon at the team hotel and ending a day later with a local gas station stop for “snack time” after a blowout victory. This is a glimpse of how the Wofford program, which did not have a winning record in Division I until 2008-09, operates behind the scenes.

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The Wofford team bus waits outside the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Asheville on Friday. Matt Connolly mconnolly@thestate.com

Friday, March 8

----- 4:20 p.m. -----

Wofford doesn’t open play in the Southern Conference Tournament for another day, but you wouldn’t know it by standing in the lobby at the team hotel.

There are black and gold balloons on display immediately when you walk in the Hilton Garden Inn front door, and Wofford fans are scattered throughout the lobby. Young strolls off the elevator and heads to the ballroom. The room serves several purposes for Wofford during its stay in Asheville, including meeting area, dining hall and training room. Moments later, Young exits the hotel, stopping to chat with a few Wofford fans on the way out.

“Hey, where’s my dad?” he asks a couple of staff members as he heads toward the bus. “Has anyone seen my dad?”

Young’s father, Bob Young, is taking in the Southern Conference Tournament alongside his son, as he does every year. Bob, who is in his mid-80s, doesn’t get to as many regular season games as he used to as he lives in Radford, Virginia, but he’s not going to miss his favorite event of the season.

“Old boy isn’t getting any younger,” Mike says later. “He comes from an athletic background. He coached. Coaching is our family business. Everybody seems like coaches. It’s just what all of us do. Everybody was football coaches. They think I’m a sissy for coaching basketball.”

Bob has attended the SoCon Tournament all 17 seasons that Young has been at Wofford. During the regular season he watches every game and calls Mike about an hour after it’s over. But this week, he gets to enjoy the games and offer his thoughts in person.

“Asheville does a great job with it. It’s always a great atmosphere with bands and fans. The crowd grows every year,” Bob says. “I love watching good basketball. They play well together. They play hard. They do things the right way.”

This is no doubt a business trip for Mike, but he’s also going to cherish the time he spends with his father: “It’s awesome, and to have him on the bus with us, he gets fired up, big fan. Big fan of our team. It’s a lot of fun. I’m very thankful that his health is great, his mind’s as sharp as a tack and we have the opportunity to have him with us.”

It’s like “Christmas week” for his family, Young says, with his mom, brother and other relatives in town for the tournament.

----- 4:45 p.m. -----

As the Terriers contingent of staff members, coaches and players waits for Bob Young to arrive, Thom Henson, who is in his 18th season as Wofford’s color commentator, remembers back to past Southern Conference tournaments.

“I remember years when I didn’t pack a suitcase coming up here. Didn’t need one,” he says.

Indeed, Wofford lost its first game of the tournament seven of 11 years from 1999-2009 before winning the title for the first time in 2010.

Bob Young emerges around the corner of the Hilton and Mike meets him at the steps at the front of the bus.

“Get your old butt out of there and let’s go,” Mike jokes.

The team takes about a 10-minute bus ride to the U.S. Cellular Center so Wofford can scout VMI and Western Carolina in the first round. The Terriers will play the winner in the quarterfinals on Saturday. During the ride over, Mike has a conversation with Wofford team bus driver Ron Reynolds. He’s not just a chauffeur for Wofford. He’s a part of the team and someone Young considers a friend. The two get coffee the morning of every game day, usually at a Starbucks.

“I don’t want to go if I can’t have Ron,” Young says later. “When we win a championship, he gets a championship ring. He is both feet in. He is loyal. I don’t know if he knows anything at all about basketball, but our kids love him. He is a dear friend. … Getting places on time, getting places in a timely fashion, he’s the best and we appreciate him completely.”

----- 4:56 p.m. -----

The team arrives at the arena to watch VMI face off against Western Carolina. The players and several staff members sit in section 130, while the coaching staff sits on the baseline to get a better view. Young snacks on popcorn and looks on intently with assistant coaches Kevin Giltner, Will Murphy and McAuley.

----- 5:43 p.m. -----

The first half ends with VMI clinging to a 41-39 lead. Young, the players and staff members stand up and head to the bus, while the assistant coaches stay behind to finish scouting. As the team gets on the bus, Reynolds, who went inside to watch, comments on how evenly played the game was.

Athletic performance coach David Bland responds, “Yep, hopefully it’ll go four overtimes.” Reynolds and a few staff members chuckle as the bus heads toward the hotel.

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Wofford’s basketball team watches film inside a hotel ballroom ahead of the Southern Conference Tournament. Matt Connolly mconnolly@thestate.com

----- 6:28 p.m. -----

Dinner is served and it is quite the meal — BBQ, pulled chicken, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, green beans and banana pudding are all on the menu. Most of the players and staff members enjoy the meal in the ballroom at the hotel, while others are out and about having dinner with their families in Asheville.

As the players eat they also talk about their opponent for the next day’s game. VMI has pulled away from Western Carolina behind leading scorer Bubba Parham, who finished with 41 points in the 96-83 victory. The Keydets are only 11-20 but Wofford views them as a dangerous team. VMI held a double-digit lead on Wofford during a meeting earlier in the year and has won four straight games entering Saturday.

----- 8:58 p.m. -----

Young walks in the room a couple of minutes before film review begins, looks at boxes of snacks lined up against the wall and remarks, “If I’m not careful I’m going to gain 400 pounds on this trip.”

Film review starts promptly at 9 p.m. and assistant Will Murphy is in charge. The assistant coaches — McAuley, Murphy and Giltner — have three Southern Conference teams they are in charge of scouting. VMI is one of Murphy’s and he knows all of the Keydets’ offensive and defensive tendencies.

The top of the scouting report starts with Parham, a 5-foot-11 guard. The SoCon’s leading scorer, Parham is a volume shooter who can create his own shot and shoots it from deep.

“We’ve got to key in on him and make him inefficient,” Murphy says. “The first game we did a good job against him. The second game we didn’t.”

The first meeting between the two teams, a 90-76 Wofford road win, Parham was held to 10 points on 2-for-7 shooting. The second game, a 95-84 Wofford victory, Parham scored 30 and was 10-for-17 shooting.

Murphy then breaks down the five keys to a victory:

1. Frustrate No. 3 (Parham).

2. Guard the arc: “They need 3s to score. We need to hold them to single digit 3s and under 32 percent,” Murphy says.

3. Crash the boards: Wofford is the No. 2 rebounding team in the league, while VMI is the worst. That should be a big advantage come Saturday.

4. Move the ball and play inside.

5. Be the aggressor.

After a breakdown of the keys to the game, Wofford typically spends a good bit of time discussing the other team’s personnel and going through strengths and weaknesses of each player. With this being the third meeting between the two teams, the personnel breakdown moves pretty quickly.

The night concludes with the highlight video featuring past players.

“When it’s over you’re not getting it back,” says Skinner, who helped Wofford to the NCAA Tournament in 2014 and 2015. “There’s three things that I’ll be for the rest of my life. That’s a graduate of Wofford College, a Terrier and a champion. That feeling of camaraderie you have with each other, that family feeling, you’re not going to get that back. Take it all in, enjoy every second of it and play like you don’t want it to end.”

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Wofford basketball’s scout team puts in work in an Asheville hotel ballroom ahead of the Southern Conference Tournament. Matt Connolly mconnolly@thestate.com

Saturday, March 9

----- 8:10 a.m. -----

It’s game day. Breakfast starts at 8:30, but the scout team has arrived early to go over a few VMI plays for a walk-through in the ballroom of the hotel. Blue tape is on the floor as the scout team players work through VMI sets. After about 20 minutes, they join the rest of the players in the other side of the ball room for breakfast. The menu: eggs, bacon, home fries, pancakes and fruit.

The team next goes over a quick film study. After letting Murphy completely run the show on Friday, Young is a little more vocal Saturday morning. “We have gotta guard and we’ve gotta rebound,” Young says. “We’ve got to make this a very uncomfortable afternoon for VMI. Uncomfortable. Got it? Uncomfortable.”

The players are dismissed as film review wraps up at 9:05 a.m. “I’ll see you guys at 10:25 on the bus,” Young says.

----- 10:02 a.m. -----

A few players have already made their way down to the ballroom and are stretching, getting taped up and hanging out before heading to the bus. Murphy is putting together his film review of Chattanooga, one of his three teams, in the event that the Mocs upset East Tennessee State in the quarterfinals and become Wofford’s matchup for the semis.

As a few of the players and staff members sit around, Matt Pegram, a backup center, yells loudly as his right leg shakes up and down. He’s not mad, just ready to play. “Just take me to the gym. I can’t take this. I’m so ready to go,” Pegram says. “I hope I don’t foul out. I’m so freakin’ juiced!”

He then shares his idea for the perfect play to Murphy. Wofford runs a set where a guard comes around to the top of the key and takes a handoff from Pegram, and for four years Pegram has always handed the ball off.

“Not today,” he says. “I’m going to go tomahawk that all over those jokers. I’m going to keep it and go dunk on all of them. They won’t expect it.”

Pegram goes on to point out that VMI’s scouting report surely says he’s going to hand the ball off, and he’ll catch them off guard if he keeps the ball and drives to the hoop for a jam.

Murphy tells Pegram that Peyton Manning had success a few times in his career running a bootleg in short-yardage situations and then walking into the end zone because no one ever expected it.

Pegram: “See, that’s what I’m saying!”

Murphy: “No, no. I’m not telling you to go do that. That’s not permission.”

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Fans cheer on Fletcher Magee and the Wofford basketball team as they leave the Hilton Garden Inn for the Southern Conference Tournament. Matt Connolly mconnolly@thestate.com

----- 10:15 a.m. -----

Players and coaches start heading toward the bus through Wofford fans who have formed a tunnel in the hotel lobby. At 10:23 the bus departs. At 10:29 it arrives at the arena. Wofford cheerleaders and the pep band greet the Terriers as they walk off the bus and into the arena for their first game of the tournament. Wofford enters the building and heads straight to its designated locker room, which is locker room D for Saturday’s game.

----- 10:40 a.m. -----

Most players and staff members are out for warm-ups and players are stretching and getting loose on the court. Wofford goes through its pregame routine, which includes getting up plenty of shots from different spots.

The Terriers lead the conference in 3-point shooting at 42 percent and it’s easy to see why. Wofford has the top two 3-point shooters in the conference in terms of percentage in Nathan Hoover (45.8 percent) and Fletcher Magee (43.2 percent), and they rarely miss during warm-ups.

As most of the players have already exited the court, Magee, the Southern Conference Player of the Year, spins a pass to himself in the corner, catches the ball facing the stands, twists in the air and fades away while releasing the ball. It hits nothing but the bottom of the net and he races back to the locker room to join the rest of his teammates.

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Wofford cheerleaders run team flags around the court before the start of an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia Military for the Southern Conference basketball tournament championship, Saturday, March 9, 2018, in Asheville, N.C. Kathy Kmonicek AP

----- 11:59 a.m. -----

Pregame introductions start. As the arena announcer reads off the starting lineups, Young takes a second to look around at the nearly full arena and soak in the moment. Coaches often have blinders on while in the middle of a special run and don’t enjoy the present time, but not Young. A crowd of more than 5,000 fans is on hand for the game, and about 85 percent of that is cheering for Wofford.

“There was a time coming to our league tournament, and I think toxic gas could be dropped in our fan section and not a soul would’ve been hurt,” Young would say later. “Now, I mean we painted that building black and gold. ... Appreciative and respectful of where we’ve been and how we’ve gotten here.”

----- 12:05 p.m. -----

Fewer than two minutes into the game, Young throws a massive fist pump into the air as VMI coach Dan Earl calls a timeout following a 7-0 Wofford spurt. The Terriers are executing their game plan perfectly, harassing Parham and not giving him an easy look at the basket.

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Wofford Terriers head coach Mike Young directs his team against VMI in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game for the Southern Conference basketball tournament championship, Saturday, March 9, 2018, in Asheville, N.C. Wofford won 99-72. Kathy Kmonicek AP

The Keydets have unsuccessfully tried two backdoor plays in their first four possessions, something Wofford’s staff warned its players of during film review after VMI had success with backdoor cuts against the Terriers earlier in the year.

---- 12:47 p.m. -----

It’s now halftime and after Wofford raced out to a 22-point lead with 8:41 remaining in the first half, VMI has battled back to cut Wofford’s lead to 48-37 at the break. Magee drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the first half and push the lead to double digits, but VMI is still hanging around. The Terriers head back to the locker room to regroup.

---- 1:44 p.m. ----

After the Keydets stayed within striking distance in the first half, they ran into a buzz saw in the second. Wofford plays 14 players in the 99-72 win, with 11 of them scoring and six reaching double figures. The buzzer sounds and a mild celebration ensues before the players and staff members return to the locker room.

----- 1:46 p.m. -----

Young, the first person in the locker room, sits down on a chair and takes a moment to gather his thoughts before everyone else joins him. Jackson, Wofford’s second leading scorer and an All-Southern Conference performer, emphasizes: “We’ve still got a lot of work to do. ... A whole lot of work to do. We’ve got two more.”

Young addresses the team and points out that Wofford did what it needed to do to win, from sharing the ball to finishing with 20 assists to out-rebounding VMI 44 to 31. “A heck of a win. I’m proud of you. ... Nice job,” he says.

----- 1:49 p.m. -----

Young, Chevez Goodwin, Magee and Hoover head to the postgame press conference.

After the interviews are complete, Young and the Terriers head to section 109 to watch the first half of ETSU and Chattanooga. Young takes a seat beside his dad and snacks on popcorn once again before moving around the arena and stopping and chatting with different people.

----- 3:13 p.m. -----

The first half ends with ETSU leading 37-33. About half of the team stays to watch the second half, while everyone else heads to the bus. It’s snack time.

Following road victories, the Terriers stop for “snack time” on their way home. Players race off the bus at a local gas station or convenience store, grab a random item in the store and pose for a picture before returning the item to the shelf and grabbing an actual snack and a drink.

On this day, the Wofford team bus pulls into a Shell station in downtown Asheville. Players pose for a picture that features Hoover and a mock marriage proposal to reserve guard Ryan Larson as a couple of players stand in the background holding flowers for the occasion. The gas station clerk looks on with confusion before the players go through the checkout line.

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Following road victories, the Wofford Terriers stop for snacks at a local convenience store on their way home. Matt Connolly mconnolly@thestate.com

----- 3:31 p.m. -----

“All right, let’s go round it up!” Young yells before the team heads back to the bus. At 3:42 the bus is back at the hotel and the players have a little free time before dinner and another round of film study begins.

The State’s time shadowing Wofford ends at about 4 p.m. Saturday, but the Terriers’ success in Asheville is just getting started.

Wofford (29-4) goes on to win the Southern Conference Tournament, defeating UNCG 70-58 Monday night to finish a perfect 21-0 against SoCon teams this season. The weekend is somewhat of a precursor to what lies ahead.

Wofford has come close to pulling off an upset in the NCAA Tournament before, falling 53-49 to Wisconsin as a No. 13 seed in 2010 and losing 56-53 to Arkansas as a 12 seed in 2015.

Is this the year the Terriers get over the hump and earn an NCAA Tournament win? Young sure hopes so.

“We’re going to have what looks like a very favorable seed, which means we’re going to play somebody really good. We’re not going to play McCracken Middle School,” Young says. “But I’ve done it enough to know as a 15, a 14, a 13, a 12, the best two opportunities we had to win we were 13 and 12 against Wisconsin and Arkansas. We keep this thing rolling and get a 6, get a 7, get a 9, we’re going to have a great look at somebody.”

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Matt Connolly is the Clemson beat writer and covers recruiting and college sports for The State newspaper and The State.com
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