With a berth in the NCAA Tournament on the line, the East Tennessee State University Bucs took care of business Monday night, beating UNC Greensboro 79-74 in the championship game of the Southern Conference basketball tournament.
ETSU earned the SoCon’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The pairings will be announced Sunday during the NCAA’s selection show. The Bucs will take a 27-7 record into the Big Dance.
It will be the Bucs’ 10th NCAA appearance, their first since 2010
UNCG (25-9) will settle for an NIT bid.
T.J. Cromer, who had 41 points in the semifinals the night before, scored 23 and was the tournament’s MVP.
“It means everything, man, just to finally win it,” Cromer said. “All our hard work paid off. We’re bringing a championship back to Johnson City. This feels even better than I thought it would.”
Cromer made all 11 of his free throws and got 14 of his points in a decisive second half.
“I think for a guy who just came off a 41-point performance, T.J. was very patient,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes said. “He let the game come to him. We had a long talk today about that. They’re going to try to take you away, let it come to you. And it did. he made a lot of great plays in the second half.”
ETSU went 19-for-19 from the free throw line, breaking the school record.
With a large contingent of rowdy ETSU fans among the crowd of 6,400, the arena formerly known as the Asheville Civic Center had the feel of years gone by. The championship came two days shy of the 25th anniversary of the Bucs’ last championship here, the one that capped a four-year run of titles in Asheville.
It didn’t come easy, especially in the final minute.
Jordy Kuiper made a 3-pointer with 12 seconds left to cut the Bucs’ lead to 77-74. Then ETSU’s A.J. Merriweather turned the ball over.
Francis Alonso, UNCG’s 3-point bomber, had an open look at a tying shot. It bounced off the rim and Merriweather grabbed the rebound of his life, was fouled, and iced the victory with two free throws.
“The basketball gods were smiling on us,” said Forbes, who added that he thought Alonso’s shot was going in.
Merriweather was in tears when it was over. They were tears of joy for the senior, who will end his four-year career at ETSU on the game’s biggest stage.
“It was a bonehead play,” he said. “But we did it. We’re going dancing. It’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of. Ever since I was a little kid, this was the moment I’ve been waiting for.”
Merriweather finished with 13 points, while Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Tevin Glass each had 12. David Burrell, the smallest of ETSU’s inside players, had six blocked shots, tying the single-game tournament record.
The Bucs broke the tournament record for blocked shots with 26 in three games.
ETSU was hurt in the first half when Merriweather was called for two quick fouls. He sat the final 17 minutes as the Spartans took a 38-31 halftime lead with three players accounting for all but two of their points.
“We just played them a week ago and we came out in the second half and played really bad and they stomped on us,” Forbes said. “We knew we couldn’t come out and play that way again.”
The Bucs appeared more settled to start the second half and quickly cut the deficit to one.
Jermaine Long finally got ETSU back to even when his 3-pointer made it 46-46 with 15:05 left. It was the Bucs’ first 3-pointer of the night, extending their streak to 929 consecutive games with at least one 3-point basket. And it came from a player who entered the game having made 3 of 27 of his long-range shots.
Moments later, Burrell’s 3-pointer gave ETSU its first lead since the opening minutes at 51-50.
The Bucs increased their lead to seven on a jumper from Merriweather. Seconds later, the advantage was 60-52 when Merriweather connected from 3-point range.
Merriweather had scored seven in a row for the Bucs.
Glass picked up a loose ball and scored with a roar for a 64-54 advantage.
The Bucs led by as many as 12, but Alonso drilled a 3-pointer with 38 seconds left, cutting their lead to 75-71.
The Bucs scored two points on a strange play late in the first half.
UNCG center RJ White backed into ETSU’s Isaac Banks and Banks was called for a blocking foul. White, maybe not knowing he got the call, reacted to the whistle and that earned him a technical foul. Cromer made the free throws.
The Bucs shot 53 percent and out-rebounded the Spartans 32-27.
Alonso finished with 28 points, while White had 23 and Baldwin added 12.
UNCG had been 20-0 when leading at halftime.