Beyond the Scoreboard: Southern Conference tourney comes to Asheville next week

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Photo credit: WLOS Staff

The Southern Conference Basketball Championships are less than two weeks away, with 18 teams ready to invade Asheville for five days of basketball entertainment March 1-5 at U.S. Cellular Center.

The nation’s oldest collegiate basketball tournament is being played for the 97th straight year, and Asheville is hosting for the 19th time, more than any other city in the league’s illustrious history.

Two dominant teams will enter play as the favorites to claim the championship games for the women (March 4) and men (March 5), when the winners will earn an invite to the NCAA tournament.

The men’s favorite is defending champion East Tennessee (23-5, 14-1).

The Bucs, who have won 16 of their last 17 games, have three home games this week to close out the regular season and earn the tourney’s top seed. ETSU has a two-game lead in the regular-season race over UNC Greensboro (21-7, 12-3).

The Chattanooga women have long dominated the SoCon tourney, winning the title each of the past five years and 13 times in the last 17 seasons.

But this season Mercer (25-2, 12-0), which shared the league’s regular-season title with Chattanooga the past two seasons, has emerged as the most likely team to end the Mocs’ domination.

Mercer has already clinched the regular-season title and the tourney’s top seed.

But there are other contenders, especially on the men’s side.

In addition to Greensboro, which reached the tourney finals last season before losing to ETSU, Upstate South Carolina rivals Furman and Wofford are having strong seasons and could come to Asheville as 20-win teams.

And there is always the chance for a lower-seeded team to make a Cinderella run, creating the kind of drama these one-bid leagues – where it is win or go home – produce at tournament time.

Tickets are on sale at Ticketmaster and the U.S. Cellular Center (259-5736). VIP packages are $250, which includes a reserved seat and entrance to the Hospitality room, which features meals and beer and wine.

A general admission book for all games is $120, with single session tickets available for $20. Youth tickets (ages 6-12) are $10, and a single session group rate for 10 or more are $15 per ticket.

And for the thousands of fans who will visit WNC over the weekend and bring more than $6 million in expected economic impact to the area, there is plenty to do between games.

Asheville’s vibrant downtown full of shopping, dining, beer halls and sightseeing should be teeming with fans, and the city and the SoCon have combined to produce several events outside the Cellular Center.

On Saturday March 3, there is the Downtown Dribble and KidsFest from 9-11:30 a.m. Cheerleaders, mascots and bands will be at Pack Square with games and interactives for kids. Downtown Dribble begins at 11 a.m., with each kid dribbling to the U.S. Cellular Center receiving a T-shirt, basketball and free admission to the games that day.

At noon at the Cellular Center, the SoCon Teddy Bear Toss will fill the basketball floor. A small donation to the Mission Children’s Hospital provides a stuffed animal to be thrown and then donated to the hospital. As many as 1,500 hundred bears are expected to soar to the floor.

The Ingles JAMFEST will fill downtown with music Sunday March 4 from 1:30-3:45 p.m. outside the Cellular Center. It’s an outdoor tailgate party with Joe Lasher and Lyric plus local food and beverage vendors that benefits the Eblen Charities Hoops Against Hunger initiative.

Throughout the tourney, collection bins will accept food items for Hoops Against Hunger, and fans will receive $5 off a single-session ticket for a donation.

For Monday’s men’s championship game, it’s Hometown Heroes Night, when the SoCon honors members of the military, fire, police, emergency and medical services charitable organizations plus government and civil service workers. All will be given the opportunity to watch the men’s title game at 9 p.m.