The Wofford Terriers have been no stranger to success in recent years.
Entering the 2015-16 campaign, they had partaken in the Big Dance four of the prior six years, twice etching back-to-back league titles. Both of those times, assistant coach Tim Johnson and his friend Jay the Great released a triumphant rap track, featuring prideful lyrics about Terrier basketball loosely parodying current hits.
This season, there was no such song.
Wofford’s quest for three consecutive titles ended at the hands of the Western Carolina Catamounts this March in the second round of the SoCon tournament. It took a pair of agonizing, back-and-forth overtimes to extinguish the last flickering embers of hope; it was the final setback in a season riddled with loss.
But the Terriers had more than a simple streak on their minds.
An unexpected loss
On March 19, 2015, Wofford became 0-4 all-time in the NCAA tournament — a statistic that fails to reflect all the heartbreak and lost dreams encountered over the years.
The Terriers’ first two appearances were decided by an average of six points, and an unusually cold shooting night held Wofford back from having a shot at the Michigan Wolverines in 2014. A loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks a season later proved to be similar on the surface, but immensely more heartbreaking.
Wofford, a 12-seed, opened the game with a lively pace and even led by one at halftime, 28-27, before succumbing to the Hogs’ relentless attack. Still, the underdogs were never out of the picture. Despite falling behind late in the second half, the Terriers kept it tight enough to earn a pair of appealing looks at a game-tying 3-pointer with time running down.
One of those looks was Karl Cochran‘s.
A sort of local legend, Cochran tore up stat sheets and record books — he had the team’s highest per-game average in nearly every major statistical category in 2014-15 — an acted as an invaluable emotional leader on both sides of the court during his time at Wofford. Down the stretch against Arkansas, unfortunately, Cochran missed his last eight field-goal attempts, including one of those fateful heaves in the final moments.
It would be the last time Cochran or fellow senior Lee Skinner would don a Wofford uniform.
Both are now chasing larger goals in professional leagues, as expected. Cochran has gradually seen his minutes increase this season with Rio Grande Valley of the NBA’s D-League, while Skinner has been busy making a name for himself overseas.
No one expected the next loss for Wofford basketball.
Late on a listless June night, with emotion from the heartbreaking defeat still lingering in the steamy South Carolina air, rising underclassman Jeremiah Tate and a friend took a swim at the YMCA camp at which they worked.
One resurfaced, one did not. Tate was 19.
An unbridled, yet unknown talent on the court and in life, Tate spent many hours behind the scenes in practice to help ensure the Terriers’ starting five would be well-prepared throughout the various challenges a season can bring.
One day, he would have been that starter.
Early last fall, the program worked through the sting from such a devastating tragedy and began focusing on the ensuing campaign. They wore commemorative patches to honor their lost teammate.
In the 2015-16 season, Wofford would not be playing to defend their SoCon championship. They would be playing for Jeremiah.
A pleasant surprise
Five months after the tragedy, in a half-empty Mizzou Arena, where the sounds of squeaking shoes, scattered conversations and a booming public-address announcer bounced like shadows off the walls, the Terriers opened the 2015-16 season against the Missouri Tigers. Wofford received a welcome surprise in the form of Fletcher Magee, a true freshman from Orlando, Fla.
Magee dropped 22 points in Wofford’s nine-point loss, enough to lead all scorers and open eyes in his collegiate debut. Fans watching the contest enjoyed an early taste of his specialty — a lethal stroke from behind the arc.
His 3-point shooting garnered national attention following a breakout conference game against VMI in early February. Magee slung home 9 of 10 attempts, spearheading an NCAA-record 17 of 21 team performance from long distance.
“He got those first couple down and then [the basket] must have looked like the size of a bathtub,” head coach Mike Young told the Wofford IMG Sports Network in a post-game interview.
Magee, who this month was voted by fans as College Court Report’s Freshman of the Year, also excelled from the foul line this season, leading the nation with a blazing 92.5 free-throw shooting percentage. He provided a great complement to Wofford junior point guard Eric Garcia, who not only nabbed the league’s top assist-to-turnover ratio in 2015-16 season, but had already established his own reputation as a sharpshooter.
Alongside Magee and Garcia was senior Spencer Collins, a versatile guard who over the last several years consistently placed among the conference’s top scorers. Collins closed last season with 75 made 3-pointers and a team-high average of 14.8 points per game. Wofford ruled the SoCon in shooting from behind the arc, with 41 percent of threes falling.
Wofford also enjoyed sterling senior seasons from two veteran post players, C.J. Neumann and Justin Gordon. Neumann, known as a powerful presence in the lane and a proficient possession-recycler, logged a league-best 225 rebounds a season ago. Gordon led the team with 17 blocks this year.
Collins, Neumann and Gordon, along with reserve Zach Korkowski, will be lost due to graduation.
Not Always as it Seems
Despite Wofford’s many bright spots in 2015-16, the year sticks out like a disappointment when viewed against a backdrop of prior success.
Unlike two seasons ago, when the Terriers entered Christmas break virtually unscathed from a heavy non-conference slate, Wofford stumbled early and often out of league play last season. The Terriers went 2-9 against Division I opponents during the months of November and December; the stretch included both valiant showings against top 25 squads North Carolina and Vanderbilt, along with tough double-digit losses to Columbia and Harvard of the Ivy League.
Young’s squad ended the year at 15-17 overall, the program’s first losing season since the 2012-13 campaign, when the four freshmen made their debuts.
All that, though, is immaterial.
Wofford still managed to keep pace with the rest of the SoCon, beating each team except eventual champion, the Chattanooga Mocs, at least once. The Terriers were able to clinch a four-seed in the conference tournament, but dropped three of their final four regular season games, including a five-point setback to Western Carolina on Feb. 25.
A little over a week later, the Catamounts ended Wofford’s season in the double-overtime heartbreaker.
In the disappointment that ensued, perhaps assistant coach Johnson said it best in a recent tweet:
We all wanted to win for Jeremiah. But in hindsight, JT’s legacy is bigger than ball. We honor him in the ways we live moving forward.
While shiny trophies and NCAA tournament berths mean so much in the moment, members of the Wofford basketball program have discovered something more.
Through a season of loss, they have found victory.