As UNC Greensboro coach Wes Miller and The Citadel's Duggar Baucom met in the post-game handshake line, Miller stopped the Bulldogs' coach for a few extra words.
"I told him that coaching against him has challenged me more in the time we've been in the league together than anything else I can relate to that," Miller said. "His teams always play with so much effort, and they never give in."
Even with its injury list growing by the game, a short-handed Citadel squad made Miller's UNCG team, the preseason Southern Conference favorite, earn every bit of a 79-69 victory at McAlister Field House on Wednesday night.
The Bulldogs, with four regulars sidelined by injury and one healthy point guard, led the Spartans at the half, out-rebounded the bigger squad and trailed by just six with less than five minutes to play. Two freshmen, guard Fletcher Abee and 6-9 center Brady Spence, led the Bulldogs (6-10, 0-5) with a combined 37 points.
All-SoCon performers James Dickey and Isaiah Miller combined for 35 points for the Spartans (14-5, 4-2). Dickey, a 6-10 senior who is more than 7 feet tall if you count the stack of hair on top of his head, had 19 points and 12 rebounds. Miller, a quicksilver senior guard, added 14 points.
The Bulldogs were short-handed again, with backup point guard Rudy Fitzgibbons (hamstring) joining the injury list. Forward Hayden Brown (hamstring) and guards Jerry Higgins (knee) and Jackson Gammons (stress fracture) were once again not available.
With point guard Tyson Batiste forced to play 37 minutes, the Bulldogs committed 32 turnovers leading to 34 UNCG points. It was The Citadel's most turnovers in a regular-season SoCon game since when 1994.
"Same song, different verse," said Baucom, whose team had lost three SoCon games by a combined seven points. "We were really short-handed tonight, but the kids fought and kept fighting. Everybody got a glimpse of how good Brady Spence is and is going to be, and Fletcher Abee was unbelievable again.
"The 32 turnovers hurt us, with one healthy point guard who was about worn out. And their pressure is better than anybody else in the league, and ranks high nationally. Our halfcourt defense was awesome. Some of our teams in the past, if we had 32 turnovers, we'd lose by 30. But we were in this one until the last media timeout."
The Bulldogs cut a 13-point gap to 59-53, and had four straight possessions with a chance to get even closer. But they missed two 3-pointers and turned the ball over twice. The Citadel got within six again at 67-61, but Miller hit from 15 feet and Dickey scored six straight points, two on a goal-tending call.
Citadel freshman Brady Spence battled on fairly even terms against the 6-10 senior Dickey, hitting 7 of 10 shots for a career-best 17 points with seven rebounds and a block. He had three dunks, a couple on nice feeds from Kaiden Rice (13 points).
"Going against that type of big guy is crazy," said Spence, who played a career-high 24 minutes. "I went as hard as I could, but he's amazing. He played a great game."
Said Baucom, "He makes us look stupid that he's not playing a lot more. He's got great hands, he finishes and is an unbelievable kid to coach."
Fletcher Abee, another freshman, knocked down 4 of 11 from 3-point range for his 20 points, adding six rebounds and two steals. Senior Kaelon Harris had nine points and 10 rebounds as The Citadel out-rebounded the Spartans by 38-34.
Backup point guard Rudy Fitzgibbons injured a hamstring in a non-contact drill on Tuesday and missed the game. Baucom said he expects Fitzgibbons back for Saturday's game at VMI, but Jackson Gammons and Jerry Higgins are likely out for the season.
Starting forward Hayden Brown, who has missed 10 of the last 12 games and played 19 minutes since Nov. 20, still is day-to-day with his hamstring injury, Baucom said.
"I don't see Jackson or Jerry coming back," Baucom said. "As little as they've played this year, they are too valuable to waste a year on. We still hope to get Hayden back and the plan is for Rudy to be back Saturday."
UNCG coach Wes Miller said he has been reprimanded by the SoCon after drawing two technical fouls in the final 23 seconds and getting ejected from a 64-57 loss to ETSU on Jan. 8, but will not face a suspension. The Spartans have won two straight after losses to Wofford and ETSU.