Mike Young has coached for 29 seasons at Wofford College for moments like Wednesday night.
Wofford is Young’s home, a liberal arts school established in 1854, with enrollment this fall of just 1,683. Spartanburg, S.C., with its history dating back to the American Revolution, is where Young has spent his adult life. Coaching — for 13 seasons as an assistant, the last 16 as head coach — at Wofford runs through his blood stream.
He bleeds black and gold.
“I love this place,’’ Young told NCAA.com. “I love the kids. I love the people we have an opportunity to recruit. The high character. They’re fun to coach. And they all graduate. I love Spartanburg. My wife has a great job at Pricewaterhouse. It’s home. It’s what we have built. I’m proud of that. And I believe we can make it better and better. That’s why I have stayed.’’
Wofford’s historic win over No. 5 North Carolina on the defending national champions home court will forever be a moment he will cherish.
— Wofford Basketball (@WoffordMBB) December 21, 2017
But it won’t define him or the program.
This was, after all, a regular-season game on Dec. 20. The holy grail has been and will always remain, winning the Southern Conference tournament and earning an NCAA tournament berth.
He’s done that four times in a six-year span from 2010-2015. However, each year the Terriers have made the tournament, they have yet to play spoiler and advance past the first round.
But, wow, how sweet was this for him.
“Surreal,’’ Young told NCAA.com by phone as he left the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., late Wednesday night. “This is the North Carolina Tar Heels. This is Chapel Hill. This was the holiday season and not your typical mid-week crowd. But it wasn’t like we hit a buzzer beater. We were up 14 in the second half. We rebounded. We defended. We did all the things you need to do to go anywhere and win.’’
Wofford did it all in the 79-75 win. The Terriers were led by junior guard Fletcher Magee, who scored 27 points. Junior forward Cameron Jackson scored 18 and grabbed nine boards. Wofford forced 14 Carolina turnovers to its 10. The Tar Heels shot just 28 percent on 3s. This was no fluke of a win. Wofford outplayed North Carolina. Of course, play it again, and again and again, go best of three, five or seven and UNC probably wins the majority of games, if not all the others.
But not Wednesday.
When you beat the #5 UNC Tar Heels on the road… pic.twitter.com/JBCLdHa94K
— Wofford Basketball (@WoffordMBB) December 21, 2017
“It’s not just any regular-season win,’’ said Young. “It’s North Carolina. You’ve seen them. They’re good, they’re really good.’’
Pitt transfer Cameron Johnson made his debut for North Carolina. He played 17 minutes off the bench. He scored 10 but was 1-of-5, all on 3s.
“They can still have a special year,’’ said Young of the Tar Heels, who got production out of Joel Berry II (23) and Luke Maye (17) but that was about it. “I grew up a North Carolina fan. I have so much respect for coach (Roy) Williams and this school and this basketball program — arguably the most storied in the country.’’
Teams outside of the power conferences have done this plenty, as recently as Fort Wayne going into Indiana this week and beating the Hoosiers just after they beat Notre Dame.
How does a team pull it off when they are supposedly lacking comparable talent, resources and have to play on the road?
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“You have to have a level of toughness and a level of resolve,’’ said Young. “You have to come onto the floor knowing what you have to do to succeed and adhere to those things. And if you do, we should win the basketball game.’’
Shockingly, this was not one-way buy game, either.
Young said this is a two-for-one deal with North Carolina going to Wofford’s new arena in 2018 before Wofford returns the game in 2019. The Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium opened on Nov. 10 against South Carolina. Gamecocks coach Frank Martin had agreed to open the arena, fresh off taking the Gamecocks to the Final Four last April.
Wofford had the same deal with Georgia Tech as it has with UNC, beating the Yellow Jackets earlier this season at home on the back end of the two-for-one with them after the first two games in the series were in Atlanta.
— Wofford Athletics (@WoffordTerriers) December 21, 2017
And this isn’t totally out of character for Wofford to beat power schools, having knocked off Purdue, Virginia Tech, NC State, Clemson and Cincinnati in its past.
The win over NC State was the last game for the Wolfpack in Reynolds Coliseum on Dec. 4, 2014. The Terriers beat Clemson on Nov. 21, 1999. The win over Purdue was Dec. 19, 2007. The Boilermakers weren’t ranked at the time but did finish the season in the top 25. The win over Virginia Tech was Dec. 2, 2002. The 91-90 triumph against the Bearcats came on Nov. 21, 2006.
The respect for Wofford’s program runs deep.
“On the offensive end (Young) gets his players to cut so hard and read so well off all multiple different staggered screens that they run,” Mercer coach Bob Hoffman told NCAA.com. “He uses his players strengths exceptionally well. They run so many different endings to the same look it’s hard to prepare for. He has always had a least one guy that was almost unguardable shooting the ball.
On the defensive end, they have a certain defensive system and stay to their principles well. He’s a tough minded coach and they are a beast to prepare for. I have the utmost respect for him and his coaching. He does everything right. The way college basketball should be.”
Now, Wofford was 0-22 against ranked teams prior to this win. So there’s that.
But the Southern Conference is no stranger this season to knocking off “brand” name teams or giving them a major scare.
East Tennessee State was up 22 on Xavier in the second half last Saturday before losing.
Furman was tied with Tennessee with a minute left Wednesday before losing in Knoxville.
Mercer, then a member of the Atlantic Sun but now in the Southern Conference, did beat Duke in the 2014 NCAA tournament first round in Raleigh.
And there was that former member, Davidson, and a player named Steph Curry, who had quite a run for the Southern Conference. Davidson reached the Elite Eight in 2008, but surprisingly the wins weren’t against any team ranked as high as UNC Wednesday, beating No. 24 Gonzaga, No. 8 Georgetown and No. 6 Wisconsin. The only other ranked wins for the league were College of Charleston beating then No. 21 Baylor in 2012 and No. 9 North Carolina in 2010 and Davidson knocking off No. 12 Kansas in 2011.
Oh, and in addition to Wofford beating Georgia Tech this season, UNC Greensboro beat NC State in Raleigh last Saturday.
So now what? Does this win go in the archives, into a trophy case with framed photos but doesn’t amount to much in March?
The Southern, as you see above, is no joke and the 8-4 Terriers will have a hard time winning the league or the automatic qualifier with four other teams mentioned above (Mercer, ETSU, UNCG and Furman) all having an equal shot.
“This is certainly a great win for us and a step ahead for us,’’ said Young. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. The first two weeks of the season we were nothing to write home about (losing to South Carolina, at Cal, at Texas Tech and at UNC Asheville). I see us getting better and understanding and believing we have a shot. But we can win the league, absolutely.’’
Young, 54, will savior every last second of this one, though.
“There’s nothing like winning our conference championship and playing in the NCAA tournament,’’ said Young. “That’s the ultimate. But this is a surreal moment for us and I’m so proud of our team.’’