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Upstate debacle will be hard for Bucs to forget

Kelly Hodge • May 28, 2013 at 8:44 PM

Given its up-and-down pattern the last couple of months, maybe the East Tennessee State basketball team has one more win left in it. Probably not.

It's going to be hard for the Bucs to go to the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament this week and forget the mess they made to end the regular season. The home fans certainly won't.

The lethargic 88-56 loss to USC Upstate on Friday night went down as the Bucs' worst defeat in their eight seasons in the A-Sun, which fits nicely with their overall record of 10-21. That ties for most losses in program history. Barring a national championship run, this team is going to own that one soon.

The Bucs were simply outclassed and outscrapped by the Spartans, who made 13 3-pointers and dominated the boards. Losing at home by 51 to Virginia Commonwealth, a Top 25 team, two months ago was bad enough. Losing by 32 to a team that was playing Division II basketball not long ago is something else.

Coach Murry Bartow and junior forward Hunter Harris each hit on the same description of the Upstate debacle afterward: embarrassing. And it could have been worse, considering the Spartans led by 41 with more than eight minutes left.

By then, many among the season-high crowd of 4,389 had made their way to the exits. In their minds, the season was for all intents and purposes over.

But the Bucs will show up in Macon, Ga., this week anyway. They were waiting Saturday to see who they'll play in the quarterfinals, and they knew it wouldn't be Mercer or Upstate, the only teams to sweep them in the regular season. They split with all five of the other teams in the tournament.

So there is a chance the Bucs could win another game. They followed a conference loss with a win seven times on their way to an 8-10 record. Trouble is, they couldn't string together wins. Their longest streak of the season was two games, and they did it once.

It's hard to imagine them winning three games in three or four days against anybody.

Of course, it's been an unpredictable season in the Atlantic Sun, and there are few certainties as teams get ready for the tournament. They can all take comfort in knowing that Belmont won’t win it.

The Bruins have moved on to torment the Ohio Valley Conference after claiming five of the last seven championships, including the last two. (They will be the top seed in their first OVC tournament.) The void they’ve left is substantial, and it remains to be seen who can fill it, at least temporarily.

Mercer would be the logical choice. The Bears claimed the regular-season championship with a 14-4 record and have won nine of their last 10 games. They’re a veteran team playing on their home court, where they’re 13-0 this season.

Then again, Bob Hoffman’s bunch tends to wither under the bright lights of March.

The Bears got to the championship game when the tournament first came to their building three years ago, losing to ETSU, but they haven't make it back. Last season it was upstart Florida Gulf Coast that knocked them out in the semifinals.

The second-seeded Eagles handed Mercer its only loss in February and look like a good bet to challenge again this week. Stetson and Jacksonville, the respective 3- and 4-seeds, appear vulnerable. Upstate, sitting at No. 5, may be the dangerous team in the mix.

The Spartans, with perhaps the best player in the league in junior forward Torrey Craig, were picked second in the preseason polls. And they had a share of the lead at the halfway point. Then they went out and dropped six of seven games in February before going over to ETSU for a confidence boost.

Thanks to the Bucs, they have a whole new outlook now.

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