Game #9-382: Savannah State Tigers at South Carolina State BulldogsJanuary 26, 2013 6:00 pm
SHM Memorial Center
Going into this game at South Carolina State in Orangeburg, Savannah State was 10-9 and 4-1 in the MEAC. The Tigers were third in the MEAC out of 13 teams, which is not too bad. But Savannah State entered with higher expectations. The Tigers were the preseason favorites in the MEAC, after finishing last season as the MEAC regular season champions. And the MEAC was not too bad last year either, with tournament champion Norfolk State pulling an upset over 2 seed Missouri in the NCAA Tournament. Under head coach Horace Broadnax and preseason MEAC Player of the Year Rashad Hassan, the Tigers are certainly one of the top basketball programs among HBCUs today. But only several years ago that was not the case for Savannah State. Less than ten years ago, a ten win season would be a wild success for the Tigers. Now SSU has ten wins by late January in a season that has been slightly below expectations. It cannot be understated how far Savannah State has come in Division I basketball under Broadnax. Because when Broadnax arrived in Savannah, many questioned the presence of the Tigers in Division I.
Savannah State left Division II in 1999, and became a full Division I program in 2002. But the Tigers were ill-prepared for the transition before Broadnax arrived. From the 2000-01 season through Broadnax's first season in 2005-06, Savannah State went 15-149. When Savannah State made the move to Division I, they had hoped to join the MEAC. But like Longwood's experience in trying to join the Big South, the MEAC did not want them. The MEAC is not known for standards of athletic excellence, but was not willing to take another struggling member that would be perceived to bring down the conference's standing in Division I even further. The worst year for Savannah State was in 2004-05, where the Tigers became the first Division I team in 13 years to lose all 28 games in a season. Much of the media dumped on SSU during the Tigers' winless season. One writer at the time wrote, "The Savannah State Tigers, for all their slump-shouldered losing, just don't belong at this level of competition, and nobody can find the person responsible for the school's jump to Division I." That same writer six years later (by which point Broadnax had gotten SSU to a somewhat respectable point) wrote about Savannah State alongside NJIT as being a "pair of schools (who) represented recent entries in Division I, upwardly-mobile fools moving into the wrong neighborhood, and it was difficult to muster sympathy for them."
Ouch. Very harsh words indeed. Who would make comments that negative of a struggling mid-major?
That writer was Kyle Whelliston, and those words were all written on this site. And this site of course is about mid-major basketball, and Kyle started this site due to a lack of coverage of teams struggling to get respect. And that first story by Kyle was part of the 100 Games Project when he defended Maryland-Eastern Shore, which at the time had an even worse RPI than the winless Tigers (the second story was in rooting for Centenary to avoid a winless season as they were in the process of dropping to Division III). So there really was not any outlet defending the Tigers as they continued to bumble along. In Kyle's defense, many others at the time were critical of Savannah State as well for being in Division I during the winless season. In fact, in the article Kyle linked to some of those people worked in the Savannah State athletic department! That is because the people who worked at Savannah State at the time knew how little resources they had to succeed in Division I. Back in 2005, Savannah State had an athletic budget of $2 million even with a football team (it is now up to $5 million today) and only offered eight scholarships for basketball. By contrast, Division II teams usually offer ten basketball scholarships. Even at the Division II level, Savannah State's resources were very inadequate! How could the Tigers hope to win in Division I if winning in Division II was a long shot back then? In Broadnax's first year, the Tigers played Allen and Webber International, two NAIA doormats. You know, the kind of teams mid-majors play for a super guarantee game. And Savannah State lost to them both.
But look at where Savannah State is today! The MEAC finally relented and let SSU join when Winston-Salem State backed out just before they were set to become full Division I members. And in their very first year playing in a Division I conference, Savannah State won the MEAC regular season title. After all of the criticism of their move to Division I, it is time to praise Savannah State for somehow making everything alright in the worst of times. They would now be the heavy favorites this evening at South Carolina State, a team that did very well in the MEAC back before Savannah State made the big jump.
Today, it is South Carolina State that is in the bad position after years of having one of the top HBCU athletic programs in the country. Most of SCSU's teams still fare adequate in the MEAC. But men's basketball has not, as South Carolina State has failed to win a single MEAC game in nearly two years. And to make matters worse, the school is losing students and money. A trustee at SC State has even suggested that one possible solution to its $4 million budget shortfall might be to leave Division I. S.C. State has a proud tradition, but now it is in the same position that the Tigers were in upon joining Division I. Unlike the Tigers, the Bulldogs have won games. But last season the Bulldogs failed to win a single game after the calendar reached December. And unless something big changes, there is also a good chance that will also be the case for this season. Since Matthew Hezekiah's put-back with one second left saved a win for SCSU against Jacksonville back on November 28, the Bulldogs have not won a game. Tim Carter has been the coach of the Bulldogs throughout this losing streak, and has been with better teams before at both SC State and at UT San Antonio (then of the Southland Conference). But Carter's recent teams have dealt with injury issues and have yet to match up well with anybody in the MEAC. And that is why pretty much every Division I ranking has SCSU in the bottom five in the country. But just look at where Savannah State was eight years ago, and take a look at them now. There are people today criticizing SCSU for being in Division I today, just as many criticized Savannah State for being Division I as well. But the Bulldogs just need to hold together, and they still could someday be back on top of the MEAC. If Savannah State could somehow climb to near the top, South Carolina State definitely can.
Like with every MEAC conference game, there was a women's game beforehand. But I did not make it to that game until midway through the second half as I was coming from Charleston where I saw one of the other struggling programs in the State in the Citadel. I did get to see the Bulldog men stretching in the stage area behind press row as the women's game finished up.
I have gone often to the Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center. Yet despite my frequent visits, there is one big thing I have never seen here: a weekend game against a MEAC team. The reason for this is that I am freer to travel on the weekend and have more games to pick from, as opposed to Monday games where SC State is often the only option available. I also like seeing multiple games in one day on Saturdays, and late afternoon starts often makes it hard to go to and from Orangeburg to someplace else. But now SC State has pushed the start time of the women's game back from 2 to 4, meaning the men do not play until after 6. That enables me to go to a game in the afternoon in Charleston and then come here. I have wondered if that the atmosphere would be better on the weekend here than the Mondays I usually come. But as I thought might be the case, it is not. Attendance from the Orangeburg community is up on weekends, although that is not saying much as on weekdays the crowd is often nearly all students living on campus. But you do not see more of the students getting hyper and what you would normally associate with a good atmosphere at a HBCU. It is a similar phenomenon that I have mentioned before at Charleston Southern. But one thing we did have that we do not usually see is that Savannah State brought their cheerleaders and mascot. It is not very common in Our Game to see cheerleaders and the mascot travel except during postseason events. But whenever I have seen it, it has usually been here as the MEAC does a good job at supporting its teams when they travel. And that is the case as well for the conference's new up-and-coming member.
Between the directions the programs have taken, it was never really a question of it Savannah State could win here, but whether S.C. State could stay close at home. It would stay close.... for only about two minutes. Preston Blackman, a senior who grew up not too far from Orangeburg in Hopkins (a small town about ten miles southeast of Columbia) who catch fire with his shooting early on, giving the Tigers a 20-8 lead at the second media timeout. From that point on, S.C. State would do their best to tread water and not let things get worse. Savannah State would lead 32-21 at halftime. But unfortunately the reason Savannah State's lead did not increase during the "second quarter" of the game was because nobody else besides Blackman could get a hot hand going in the first half. South Carolina State also struggled on offense, with nobody stepping up to match Blackman. The forwards in Hezekiah and Darryl Palmer did a fine enough job, but 5-9 (more like 5-7) guard Khalif Toombs struggled in shooting the ball, going 2 for 8 from behind the arc and 1 for 5 inside it.
It was the backcourt that made the difference in this game, as Blackman would continue to lead the Tigers to victory in the second half. Blackman was joined by Hassan who would control the post in the second half. But the Bulldogs kept battling, and would not go away completely until a 19-8 run just over midway through the second half gave Savannah State a 20 point lead. It would be a bloody finish to the game for the Bulldogs, quite literally for Shaquille Mitchell who finished would come out of the game after taking an elbow to the eye. I would put the picture of Mitchell being helped off here, but I will link to it instead as a warning to those squeamish at the site of blood. While Mitchell did not return this game (he did return to the bench), S.C. State did finish the game well in scoring seven of the last nine points against the Tiger bench. But Savannah State would still wind up with an easy 64-49 win. It was another step forward for a program that has been through so much, and another step back for one going through hard times.
Hopefully someday S.C. State will be able to make like Savannah State and push back towards the top of the MEAC. Unfortunately for Tim Carter, he will not be a part of that. Carter a week after this game would resign, most likely feeling heat for the long losing streaks he has endured the last couple of years. I hope that either interim coach Murray Garvin or someone can get S.C. State back to where Savannah State has gotten themselves today under Broadnax. But for now, let's take time to congratulate the Savannah State Tigers. I can see why many eight years ago thought SSU's administration was foolish to go forward in Division I. I have seen others in sports have their programs fall apart at the urging of an administrator hungry for prestige. But is it possible that Savannah State was somehow smart? They were ill-prepared to be competitive financially in Division I. But SSU could have certainly handled things worse. Just imagine how things could have gone if instead of spending $2 million, they instead spent $8 million that they did not have. Savannah State certainly handled the move better than Birmingham-Southern, which tried joining the Big South ultimately to abandon ship shortly after doing so after the BSC administration realized the financial mistakes of their predecssors. And now overcoming budget shortfalls is now what SC State will have to do to stay at this level. I really do not like saying that anybody
should not be Division I. It can be a slippery slope, as you can then say if Savannah State should be out of Division I, then so should be the entire MEAC. And then you could keep going until someone says that everybody below the Red Line does not belong at this level. And as it turns out Savannah State has improved over time and has done what it took to win. They have proven that they do indeed belong in Division I, and made the NIT last year after years of hardship. The Tigers have gone from a "cautionary tale" to a success story. And that is what Our Game is all about.
SAVANNAH STATE 64, at SOUTH CAROLINA STATE 49
SAVANNAH STATE 11-9 (5-1) -- A. Louis 2-8 0-0 4; R. Hassan 7-12 3-3 17; C. Smith 3-3 0-0 6; P. Blackman 8-13 0-0 20; K. White 1-3 2-2 5; J. Smith 1-4 3-4 5; R. Burger 0-1 0-0 0; P. Hendley 1-4 0-0 2; S. Wilson 0-1 0-0 0; C. Spears 0-0 0-0 0; D. Williams 0-0 0-0 0; A. Davis 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-49 8-9 59.
SOUTH CAROLINA STATE 4-15 (0-6) -- K. Toombs 3-13 1-3 9; M. Hezekiah 6-10 1-1 13; D. Palmer 5-6 0-0 10; L. Radovic 1-3 0-0 2; S. Mitchell 3-10 0-1 6; P. Myers 1-2 0-0 3; J. Benjamin 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-44 2-5 43.
Three-point goals: SVST 5-12 (P. Blackmon 4-8; K. White 1-2; S. Wilson 0-1; P. Hendley 0-1), SCST 3-13 (K. Toombs 2-8; D. Joint 0-1; L. Radovic 0-1; S. Mitchell 0-2; P. Myers 1-2); Rebounds: SVST 26 (A. Louis 9), SCST 20 (M. Hezekiah 7); Assists: SVST 15 (C. Smith 5), SCST 8 (K. Toombs 4); Total Fouls -- SVST 11, SCST 9; Fouled Out: SVST-None; SCST-None.
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