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Bucs still basking in SoCon championship glow

Joe Avento • Updated Mar 8, 2017 at 8:26 PM

Steve Forbes woke up Tuesday morning after a night of little sleep. Yet the East Tennessee State University basketball coach wasn’t tired, not while he was still riding the high of helping his school earn its 10th appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

“I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to wake up the morning after you made the NCAA Tournament as a head coach,” Forbes said Tuesday night at the 50/Fifty Sports Tavern, where he was doing his weekly radio show in front of an appreciative crowd. “I told my wife, ‘What a great feeling.’ It’s really cool.”

The Bucs won’t find out where or against whom they’ll be playing in the national tournament until Sunday night, giving them a chance to decompress and rest after a whirlwind weekend that culminated in a 79-74 victory over UNC Greensboro in Monday night’s Southern Conference tournament championship game.

“To have these days to enjoy it makes it even better,” said Forbes, who spent much of his day doing radio interviews. “We had a team meeting today. And I told them I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet. I only had about three hours of sleep. I still have 328 texts messages to return. That’s a good thing.”

The NCAA Tournament begins March 14 with the “First Four” opening-round games at Dayton, Ohio. The Bucs will not be involved in those games, which feature the last four at-large teams to get into the field.

First-round games are scheduled for March 16 and 17. Greenville, South Carolina is the closest first-round site for ETSU fans. Others include Orlando, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The NCAA says “teams will remain in or as close to their areas of natural interest as possible,” which makes Greenville or Orlando as the Bucs’ probable sites.

ETSU will announce ticket plans in the coming days.

T.J. Cromer was the SoCon tournament’s MVP after scoring 23 points in the championship game. He had 41 in the semifinals against Samford.

“I was real proud of T.J.,” Forbes said. “He made nine threes on Sunday night and didn’t make a three last night and still scored 23 points. He played a tremendous floor game. In big games like this, sometimes great players try to do too much. I thought he had great pace to his game and he drove the ball to the basket.”

Cromer was joined on the all-tournament team by Bucs point guard Desonta Bradford, but he thought there should have been more ETSU players honored. In fact, he gave his all-tournament plaque to A.J. Merriweather because he thought his teammate deserved it.

Merriweather was among the happiest of the Bucs when the final horn sounded. The senior guard has been around the ETSU program for four years and this was his last chance to make it the the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s been a day already?” Merriweather said laughing. “That’s kind of how it is. I’m still taking it in. It still feels surreal, just to go dancing, finally.

“I got that off my back. I had a lot of confidence in this team. Each one of the new players that signed here, I told them on Twitter ‘Welcome to something special.’ I knew what kind of season we were going to have and we got it done.”

There was a lot of talk at the 50/Fifty about UNCG’s Diante Baldwin stealing the ball in the final seconds, the play that set up Francis Alonso’s last-gasp shot.

When Alonso missed his chance at tying the game, Merriweather got the rebound and was fouled. His free throws made up the final margin.

Alonso should not have ever gotten the shot. Baldwin stepped out of bounds — there’s plenty of photographic and video evidence — after making the steal, and it happened right in front of official Karl Hess, who failed to make the call on what could have been a fatal play for ETSU’s chances.

Forbes said he was told Tuesday morning that the play was not reviewable because it only involved one player.

“They have to make the call if they see it,” Forbes said. “Obviously, the official didn’t see it. He was looking at something else. Officials are going to miss calls. We miss baskets and I don’t call the right plays all the time, either. It’s not his fault. It’s human error and it’s part of the game.

“Now, that’s a tough time to have that happen, especially if he would have made it. I don’t have any hair, but I probably would have been pulling it out after I saw that picture.”

Forbes said he wasn’t concerned about overtime had Alonso made the shot. The Bucs are undefeated in extra periods in two years under Forbes.

“I felt like our conditioning was much better than theirs,” Forbes said. “I felt if we went to overtime, we would win because they were tired and we weren’t. I wasn’t thinking that way, though. I didn’t want to think that way.”

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