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Bucs headed to Orlando to face Florida in NCAA Tournament

Joe Avento • Updated Mar 12, 2017 at 9:41 PM

The speculation is over. East Tennessee State University will play Florida in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and the game will be in the Gators’ backyard in Orlando, Florida.

ETSU is the 13th seed in the East Region while the Gators are seeded fourth. The game will be played Thursday at 3:10 p.m. at Amway Center, the home of the Orlando Magic, and will be televised on TruTV.

“It feels surreal, man,” Bucs point guard Desonta Bradford said Sunday in a packed Millennium Centre ballroom, where more than 1,000 ETSU supporters came to watch the CBS Selection Show with the team. “Playing in the NCAA Tournament is something we’ve dreamed about since we were kids. I’m still speechless.”

ETSU, the Southern Conference champion, will bring a 27-7 record into the game. Florida is 24-8 and finished second in the Southeastern Conference’s regular-season stadings before being upset by Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament’s quarterfinals.

“It was awesome,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes said of the moment he saw his school’s name on the screen. “What an incredible feeling. They can’t take that away from us. We knew we were in, but we needed to see it.”

The ballroom was jammed with a standing-room-only crowd of blue-and-gold-clad supporters. What began as a festive atmosphere reached a crescendo shortly into the Selection Show when the Bucs’ matchup was announced. The fans went wild as the team jumped for joy.

“Overwhelming,” Forbes said. “People talked about this when I took the job about how excited people were about basketball here. We just had to light the fire. And we lit it and now it’s a bonfire.

“It makes me feel proud of what we’ve accomplished so far and what our players have accomplished so far. Just to see the joy on people’s faces really means a lot to me.”

Many ETSU fans were hoping the game would be in Greenville, South Carolina, but Orlando is close enough for the team to have some support in Florida.

“That’s the great part,” Forbes said. “Our fans are going to be able to go. Some will be able to drive and some will fly.”

ETSU ticket manager Brandon Hudson said the school received 350 tickets to the opening game. Tickets are $100 for the first round and fans have until noon Monday to fill out a request form on the ETSU website, ETSUBucs.com.

The matchup wasn’t a complete surprise. Almost a week of speculation preceded the announcement and the pairing with Florida had been predicted by a few pundits. The ETSU players thought about it as well.

“We were playing around, trying to guess about who we were going to play and Florida came up a couple of times,” Bucs guard A.J. Merriweather said. “I really like the matchup. I’m excited to see what the game plan is.”

Now it’s time to get down to business on the court. The coaching staff got right to work scouting the Gators. The team returns to practice on Monday before leaving for Orlando on Tuesday afternoon.

Florida will be playing without starting center John Egbunu, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in February. The 6-foot-11, 255-pound junior averaged 7.8 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds per game.

The Gators, who enter the NCAA Tournament on a two-game losing streak, are led by KeVaughn Allen, who averages 13.9 points per game. Canyon Barry, son of NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry, averages 12.1.

“Florida’s a great team,” Bradford said. “I feel with this team we can play and compete with anybody as long as we bring it. I’m looking forward to it already.”

The Gators, coached by Mike White, are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.

“I like the matchup,” Forbes said. “Florida’s a good team. I’ve known Mike White a long time. Mike was at Ole Miss when I was at Tennessee. I think our teams are probably a lot alike, really athletic, play really hard. We both play 94 feet.

“I know it’s going to be a hard game, but we’ll be ready to play.”

Forbes joked that some of his players were so excited after the pairings were announced that they wanted to practice on Sunday night. He told them they’d have to wait until Monday.

The winner of the ETSU-Florida gets the winner of another first-round game between UNC Wilmington and Virginia.

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