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'We got our pop back'

Joe Avento • Updated Mar 3, 2018 at 9:06 PM

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Remember that old cliche about throwing out the records when two rivals meet?

Forget about it, says the East Tennessee State basketball team.

The Bucs routed Chattanooga for the third time this season in Saturday’s Southern Conference tournament quarterfinals, winning 77-59. The in-state rivals both lived up to their records, with ETSU picking up its 24th victory of the season. The 10-23 Mocs, on the other hand, needed to beat Samford in Friday night’s opening round just to hit double digits in the win column.

“We came out tonight and made a statement,” said ETSU guard Desonta Bradford, the SoCon’s player of the year who finished with 14 points and six rebounds. “This is our goal all year long to win the SoCon championship and go back to the NCAA tournament. This is one of three.”

While ETSU is dispelling cliches, how about the one about beating a team three times in a season being so tough? The Bucs’ margin of victory over the Mocs this season was 19 points, 20 and 18.

These things are cyclical and with Chattanooga coach Lamont Paris drawing good reviews in his first year, the Mocs are bound to improve in the coming years. But at the moment, this rivalry is one-sided with ETSU having won five in a row.

Of course, this comes on the heels of the Mocs winning five straight in the series, including the SoCon tournament championship game in Forbes’ first season at ETSU.

The Bucs were a relieved bunch after breaking their three-game losing streak, which before Saturday’s tip-off was the longest among all 10 SoCon teams.

If the pressure was getting to them, they weren’t showing it. It was a loose group during an informal shoot-around at the U.S. Cellular Center late Friday night, as the Chattanooga fans filed out of the arena, surprised that their team would be playing another day.

“It’s a new season,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes said. “I’ve said this many, many times. We won 16 in a row. We could have won out, made it all the way to the championship game and lost. We’d be 29-4 and we’d be at home. That’s just the way it is. We just have to play.”

Even during the three-game losing streak, the Bucs have been just one play here or there away from winning.

Now that they finally made that play — and many more — maybe that’s all they needed.

“I think we got our pop back,” said Forbes, who inserted freshmen Bo Hodges and Mladen Armus into the starting lineup and was rewarded by the pair combining for 20 points. “We lost three games in a row by about a total of eight points. It’s not like we were getting blown out of the gym. We’re here to stay. We’re going to be here.”

Could the Bucs have their swagger back? Can one win against the SoCon’s last place team really help them regain their confidence?

Those questions remain to be answered, but one thing is certain. ETSU is still playing and the biggest goal it had at the beginning of the season remains within in its grasp.

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Joe Avento is the sports director of the Johnson City Press and Kingsport Times News. Contact him at javento@johnsoncitypress.com.

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