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Can Bucs slow down Thundering Herd?

Kelly Hodge • Nov 30, 2013 at 4:51 AM

Renewing old rivalries hasn’t made it a November to remember for the East Tennessee State basketball team.

The Bucs have faced three former Ohio Valley Conference rivals — Western Kentucky, Morehead State and Tennessee Tech — and lost to all three. They’ll end the month against another familiar foe today when the high-scoring Thundering Herd of Marshall visit Freedom Hall.

Tipoff is 4 o’clock.

The teams haven’t played in five years, but were once fierce competitors in the Southern Conference. Marshall moved to the Mid-American in 1997 and is now a member of Conference USA.

The Herd come to town at 4-2 after rallying from 14 down to beat Western Kentucky, a team that defeated the Bucs 57-50 two weeks ago. One of their losses was in overtime to Stephen F. Austin, which then fell to ETSU here two days later.

The games have been part of the roundrobin Roundball Showcase that also includes Samford, UNC Wilmington and Campbellsville.

“The fact that we’ve played three of the same teams gives us a little bit of a gauge,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “We have a better idea of what to expect.”

That may be scary in the case of Marshall. Coached by Tom Herrion (who succeeded John Kresse at College of Charleston in 2002), the Thundering Herd are among the top 10 in scoring, at 90.2 points per game.

Forward Elijah Pittman, a 6-9, 220-pound senior, is ninth individually at 25.0, and he’s shooting 45 percent (23 of 51) on 3-pointers. Freshman guard Kareem Canty averages 16.7 points and 7.5 assists, which ranks fourth nationally.

Sophomore guard Chris Thomas scored 27 in the win over Western Kentucky to boost his season average to 13.0, and he had six steals. Redshirt freshman Ryan Taylor also scores in double figures (11.7) and is the team’s leading rebounder (6.5).

“They’re really talented, probably comparable to Charlotte with their length and athleticism,” said Bartow. “Pittman is an unusual player, not only because he’s averaging 25 a game, but he’s a 3-man who’s 6-9. He’s had 31, 31 and 35 in three of their six games, so he’s a very offensive-minded guy.”

ETSU holds a 25-21 advantage in the series and has dominated play in Johnson City, 17-5. It won the last meeting in Huntington, W.Va., 76-72 in 2008 behind Kevin Tiggs’ 31 points.

The Bucs (2-5) are trying to get back on track after being scorched 98-83 at Tennessee Tech on Wednesday. The game was supposed to be played the night before but had to be postponed when it was discovered that referees hadn’t been scheduled.

Bartow said he found out about 30 minutes before game time.

“A lot of people were to blame for that, including me,” he said. “It was a contractual thing where officials were supposed to be assigned by the Atlantic Sun Conference. It was on a lot of people’s checklists, but that word was never communicated.”

The loss the next day was a humbling one for the Bucs, who had won their two previous games and seemed to be building some momentum. The Golden Eagles outrebounded them 45-26 and got a career-high 27 points from junior forward Dennis Ogbe.

ETSU hadn’t allowed an opponent to score more than 80 against them this season, but Tech rang up 53 in the second half alone.

“We were just defensively atrocious,” said Bartow, “and we got crushed on the glass. The combination of those two things led to the score being what it was. We actually played pretty well offensively .”

The Bucs at least have another big body available. Ron Giplaye, the 6-6, 250-pound junior, made his ETSU debut in the loss at Cookeville, playing just two minutes at the end of the first half. Bartow expects Giplaye to give the team plenty more as his stamina grows.

“I think Ron can be a big help once he’s fully healthy and ready to go,” he said. “It’s really just a matter of him getting in game shape and getting comfortable on the floor. There is no medical issue with him right now.”

Giplaye sat out last season after transferring from Providence College, and his basketball career was further set back this summer when doctors discovered a congenital heart condition that led to surgery in August. He was cleared to begin practicing full speed about three weeks ago.

Today’s game is the last of three scheduled to be played at Freedom Hall this season — the Bucs got both their wins there — but ETSU athletic director Richard Sander said earlier in the week that there’s a chance all remaining home games could be moved to the city-owned arena.

Bartow would welcome that development.

“I’d be all for it if Dr. Sander decides to do it,” he said. “That’s totally his call.”

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