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Lady Eagles fly high into regular-season finale

Kelly Hodge • Feb 24, 2012 at 11:11 PM

The East Tennessee State women’s basketball team can do something today that nobody else in the Atlantic Sun Conference has done this season — beat Florida Gulf Coast.

Few opponents have even slowed the Lady Eagles down.

They’re 17-0 in the league and trying to become only the second team ever to go undefeated as they visit the Dome for the final regular-season game. Their average margin of victory is a whopping 22 points.

“We all know they’re undefeated in the league, and we’re hoping to spoil that for them,” ETSU coach Karen Kemp said Friday. “They’re very good at what they do. If you look at their roster, it’s senior-junior oriented, and their system takes time to learn. Those make them very difficult to beat.”

The Lady Eagles are 25-2 overall and have won 17 straight since a 69-64 loss to N.C. State at a holiday tournament in Hawaii three days after Christmas. (Their other loss was the season opener at Seton Hall.) They thrive with the 3-point shot – their 11.1 makes per game leads the nation – and turnovers.

Points tend to come in bunches.

“Once they get hot and get that momentum, they’re hard to stop,” said Kemp.

The Lady Eagles have been a formidable team for a while under coach Karl Smesko, but they haven’t been able to strut their stuff in the NCAA tournament. This is the first year the former Division II program has been eligible after going through a four-year reclassifying period.

ETSU was able to win three straight championships before last season, but Gulf Coast has always been a tall hurdle. The Lady Bucs have won only two of the eight matchups, including an 88-60 romp in Ft. Myers in early December.

An upset victory today would certainly mean a lot to ETSU’s three seniors. Natalie Pickwell, Tarita Gordon and Gwen Washington will all be playing their final home game.

“This hasn’t been the year we’ve wanted for our seniors,” said Kemp, “but they can still go out on a positive note.”

The group has combined for over 2,300 points and 1,083 rebounds in their careers. Washington is just eight points shy of become the 20th player in program history to reach 1,000, while Pickwell has scored 651 points since becoming a starter in the last two seasons.

The Kingsport native played behind Siarre Evans and Tironda Wiles her first two seasons, which were the best ever at ETSU.

“We got spoiled those first two years,” said Pickwell, the guard from Kingsport. “We thought we should go to the NCAA tournament every year. Last year we slipped up, and things have not gone like we would have hoped so far this year.”

The Lady Bucs (8-20, 7-10) opened the season with 10 straight losses. They hadn’t beaten any of the top three teams in the A-Sun until knocking off Stetson 74-72 on Thursday night.

Gordon scored the final five points, including a 3-pointer off the glass with 35 seconds left.

The victory left the Lady Bucs tied for the eighth in the conference. A loss today and they’ll have to play Gulf Coast again in the quarterfinals in Macon next week.

Pickwell thinks there’s still some magic to be made this season.

“It would be a Cinderella story, but I think we have it in us,” she said. “I believe we have the most talented players in the league. We’ve just had trouble putting it together on the court sometimes.”

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