USC Upstate is a fifth-year Division I school that will be heading to its first-ever Atlantic Sun tournament this year. As a transitional school, the Spartans struggled. In the previous four years, Upstate went 27-92. This is fairly typical for a school coming out of Division II, especially one with poor facilities. Upstate community support has lagged behind other local sporting options, and is an afterthought living in the shadow of being a commuter satellite affiliate of the University of South Carolina.
But this year, things have changed. After a five-win season a year ago, the Spartans could get a magical 20-win season with a win today on Senior Day against Stetson. Eddie Payne was also looking for his 400th career win today. Payne had previously coached at Oregon State, where he had an unsuccessful five-year stint, going 52-88. Payne would then go below the Black Line to briefly coach at Division III Greensboro College before being hired by Upstate. Payne has coached the Spartans through thick and thin, serving as the coach for all five of Upstate's Division I seasons as well as their last five seasons at the Division II level.
The big find for Payne that has turned around the Spartans is Torrey Craig. Craig is a sophomore from the small town of Great Falls, about halfway between Charlotte and Columbia. Despite a great high school career, including scoring 36 of his team's 58 points in a narrow defeat in the state championship, Craig was mostly overlooked by other college coaches. But he has found a home at Upstate, where he has become one of the top mid-major players in the country. At today's game, Upstate was heavily promoting how to vote for him for the Lou Henson Player of the Year Award.
Such a quick turnaround has happened at Upstate before. Back when the school was named USC Spartanburg and nicknamed the Rifles, they won the 1982 NAIA title only four years after having a 4-26 record and only eight years removed from being a two-year college. The ability to move from being a new school to a competitive Division I program in a short period of time gives hope to other tiny colleges. I have always wanted to see USC Sumter, the school I have volunteered and interned for, achieve similar success. But Sumter does not have the same economic base as Spartanburg unfortunately, and becoming a four-year school seems to be a goal of the distant future. The odds of USC Sumter making it to Division II are slim, much less fielding competitive Division I athletics.
And yet despite this success, Spartanburg has not supported its Spartans. USC Upstate is arguably playing as well as any other college basketball team in the state right now. There still seems to be a mindset of Upstate being a local commuter school where sports are not a big deal. Not only does Upstate trail the much smaller Wofford College in local fan support, the local high schools also draw fans away from the Spartans. Some of the more well-known high schools in the area include Dorman, Spartanburg, Byrnes, and Gaffney less than 30 minutes away. These schools are very large and put a good deal of emphasis on sports, especially American-style football. It is too bad we do not have somebody from Spartanburg participating in the 800 Games Project. In addition to Upstate and Wofford, Presbyterian, Furman, and Gardner-Webb are all less than an hour away. UNC Asheville is also not too far either. But between high schools, two schools above the Red Line less than two hours away, and other mid-majors, USC Upstate is not on the minds of most people.
Yet I figured it would be best to arrive early, since I did not have a ticket. It was Senior Day and a Saturday, so I figured the tiny Hodge Center should be close to capacity. I arrived at 12:45 PM to find the arena workers getting ready. They seemed to think I was odd for trying to buy a ticket an hour and 15 minutes before tip-off. I asked how many tickets were left, to which they said all of them since they were not ready to open. I clarified and asked how many were sold in advance, and they seemed to not believe that they did ticket sales in advance aside from season tickets. Upstate does however allow for ticket sales online for all sports on campus. So I sat on a bench and read the most recent 800GP recaps on my Android, which I had anticipated having to do beforehand (although I hoped to at least buy a ticket first).
As it turned out, there was no reason to worry about a capacity crowd. I bought a ticket on the third row of the Hodge Center halfway between midcourt and the baseline. The loud and rowdy student section I have applauded in the past was largely not present this afternoon. I first thought this had to do with Upstate having a mostly local student population that goes home on the weekend. Then I realized that in addition, much of the student section was led by the baseball team, which had a game at the same time going on across campus. At one point, a group of elderly women sitting in the student section had to get the "I Believe" chant going. In terms of actual seats, the Hodge Center is the smallest facility in Our Game. But there were still plenty of empty seats this afternoon on Senior Day.
The Spartans had a lot to play for. Winning 20 games is a major milestone for most of our teams, and would demonstrate how far Upstate has come and how far they can still go. Sophomore star Torrey Craig sat on the bench the first three minutes to give all of the seniors a chance to start. Upstate got off to an okay start, but the Hatters of Stetson were able to hang around. The biggest scare of the day came midway through the half when Craig crashed into the wall behind the basket and hobbled off to the locker room. But Craig was able to come back and help ignite a Spartan run that helped build a solid lead at the half. The run continued into the second half as Upstate pulled away in a typical A-Fun game. Craig finished with 20 points as the Spartans won 90-72. While not many showed up, those who did cared about seeing the seniors go off with their 20th win of the season and Coach Payne's 400th career win. It was a great day for the Spartans, who will play as the #3 seed in their first-ever Atlantic Sun tournament next weekend. Credit has to be given to the seniors, who arrived with little to play for on a team that did not win in a poor facility. Now they have the seen the program through to greater potential. It will be interesting with the departure of Belmont from the A-Sun next year if Craig can lead the team in the future to its first NCAA Division I Tournament appearance.
Eddie Payne will likely be able to recruit more players like Torrey Craig in the future if progress continues. Dodie Anderson, like many other Upstate alumni, has given many contributions to USC's flagship campus in Columbia. But Anderson has also committed herself to help fund the upcoming additions to the Hodge Center. With a growing enrollment and improving athletic programs, Upstate has a good chance to make a name for itself in the Spartanburg community. For now, it was off to see to see Spartanburg's more established mid-major play for my second game of the day.
at SOUTH CAROLINA-UPSTATE 90, STETSON 72 02/25/2012
STETSON 9-20 (6-12) -- C. Perez 10-13 0-0 23; A. Graham 2-9 0-0 5; A. Pegg 6-10 5-8 17; J. Naburgs 2-6 1-1 6; W. Green 1-4 2-2 4; L. McInerney 1-1 0-2 3; D. Diaz 1-4 1-1 3; T. Patterson 1-4 3-4 5; D. Morales 1-2 0-0 3; J. Paul 0-0 0-0 0; J. Weston 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 26-54 12-18 72. SOUTH CAROLINA-UPSTATE 20-11 (13-5) -- M. Blessing 3-5 0-0 8; T. Craig 8-15 0-0 20; T. Greene 2-8 0-2 4; R. Glenn 6-9 1-3 13; A. Rodgers 6-10 1-2 13; B. Olumuyiwa 3-5 2-3 8; C. Rogers 1-3 0-0 3; J. Maxey 5-9 1-2 11; F. Miller 0-6 0-0 0; C. Cook 2-4 2-2 8; R. Elam 0-0 0-0 0; B. Haynes 0-1 2-2 2; S. Porchea 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 36-77 9-16 90.
Three-point goals: STET 8-22 (J. Weston 1-1; A. Pegg 0-1; J. Naburgs 1-3; A. Graham 1-5; T. Patterson 0-1; L. McInerney 1-1; C. Perez 3-5; D. Morales 1-2; D. Diaz 0-3), SCU 9-22 (C. Cook 2-3; C. Rogers 1-3; B. Haynes 0-1; T. Craig 4-7; T. Greene 0-2; F. Miller 0-3; A. Rodgers 0-1; M. Blessing 2-2); Rebounds: STET 32 (A. Pegg 5), SCU 41 (T. Craig 9); Assists: STET 9 (A. Pegg 2), SCU 19 (F. Miller 6); Total Fouls -- STET 22, SCU 15; Fouled Out: STET-None; SCU-None.