A learning experience very nearly turned into a loss Saturday for the revamped East Tennessee State basketball team.
The Bucs needed some late heroics to escape Carson-Newman 71-63 in their only exhibition game of the preseason. Their 17-point lead with less than 10 minutes to play shrank to a single point, and it was a battle down to the wire.
The Division II Eagles were still within a basket, at 65-63, when Marcus Dubose hit a 3-pointer – his only field goal of the game -- with 48 seconds left. And the Bucs held on from there.
With a week to go before the season opener at Virginia Tech, ETSU coach Murry Bartow wasn’t sure the exhibition made things any clearer for his team, which features seven players who have yet to play a regular-season game here. He shuffled the lineup in search of good combinations, and all 10 guys saw at least eight minutes of action.
Nothing worked well for long, although an early 19-2 run put the Bucs in control. They led 34-20 at the break.
“This team is going to be a work in progress. There’s no panic,” said Bartow. “Every game is a mystery. We’re not going to get it in November, we’re not going to get it in December. We have to mess up and keep playing.”
They were able to mess up and get away with it against a team they had beaten 87-59 last season.
Redshirt freshman Lester Wilson scored eight points in the final 1:45 and led the Bucs with 17 points. The 6-4 wing from Knoxville converted a key three-point play with 58 seconds left that put the Bucs up 65-60, then sealed the deal with three free throws after the 3-pointer by Dubose.
“I’m used to that from high school,” said Wilson, who was an all-stater at Knox Carter, “but in college it’s a different game. I just went back to high school – and finished.”
Wilson and his teammates weren’t in a celebratory mood afterward.
“Some of us were thinking on the sidelines, it’s going to be a heckuva practice tomorrow,” he said.
The Bucs got an energetic game from John Walton. The 6-7 sophomore played in just 12 games last season, but he was in the starting lineup Saturday and responded with 11 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots.
Walton was even talking about triple-doubles afterward.
“I’m going to try to get Isiah’s shot block record, too,” he said, referring to Isiah Brown, who graduated last season.
The Bucs got 12 points, seven assists and three steals from senior guard Sheldon Cooley. Starting at the point, he also committed six of the team’s 21 turnovers.
It was a very quiet day for Dubose, the team’s leading returning scorer. He went 1 of 12 from the field and scored seven points.
Bartow knows the Bucs won’t win many games if Dubose can’t make open jump shots.
“He’s gotta get us 16 to 20 every night,” said Bartow. “That’s always been the challenge with Marcus. This team tonight, they didn’t even pressure him. This team played zone for 40 minutes.”
The Bucs weren’t a good offensive team a year ago, and they shot 38 percent against the Eagles, with the 21 turnovers. They were 23 of 38 at the foul line.
Junior-college transfers Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard and Hunter Harris started the game but didn’t make much impact in their ETSU debuts. Gadsden-Gilliard attempted only two shots – he did grab 10 rebounds – while Harris was 2 of 7 and finished with seven points.
Carson-Newman got gutty performances from Odell Parker and Cody Henegar. The junior forwards each collected 16 points and seven rebounds.
Parker, a 6-6 transfer from Wofford, was the driving force down the stretch. He scored nine straight points for the Eagles, including a pair of free throws that made it a 55-54 game with 4:35 left.
“I’m not surprised at all,” said C-N coach Chuck Benson, “but this is about the first time he’s played in a game in about a year and a half. In our league, he’s going to be a one-man wrecking crew.”
Cooley answered Parker’s run with a 3-pointer to give the Bucs a little breathing room at the three-minute mark. It was their first field goal in over nine minutes.
The Eagles’ last two baskets were 3-pointers by Henegar, a North Carolina Greensboro transfer. Wilson blamed himself for giving Henegar the openings and said it goes to the larger issue of how much playing time he’ll get this season.
“I’ll see more time when my defense gets better,” he said. “I’m a liability on defense, and I gotta fix that.”
The Bucs held the Eagles to 32 percent shooting, including 6 of 25 in the first half, and forced 20 turnovers. But they couldn’t slam the door on them, and that was a credit to Benson’s team.
“We didn’t show what we’re capable of in the first half, and we really challenged the players at halftime,” he said. “The second half, I thought we competed.”