The East Tennessee State basketball team is making the game look hard early in the season.
The Bucs didn’t have any answers Saturday for a player who makes it look easy.
Jud Dillard poured in 25 points, with 10 rebounds and six assists, as Tennessee Tech held on for a 65-62 victory in the Dome.
The silky smooth senior guard made 11 of 17 shots and scored at least 25 points for the third time in three games. He was coming off a 34-point, 12-rebound performance against Coastal Carolina.
“We knew who the best player in the game was,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “And he played like it.”
The win was the third straight to start the season for the Golden Eagles. The Bucs, who had lost by 18 at Virginia Tech a week earlier, fell to 0-2.
This time they battled back from 13 points down with 6½ minutes left and had a shot to tie at the end. But Sheldon Cooley couldn’t penetrate or shake free on the perimeter, dribbled out the clock and missed an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“If I could go back, I’d try to go to the rim earlier or hit a corner shooter,” said Cooley. “I took a bad shot at the end.”
The game was lost early in the second half.
Leading by four, the Bucs watched the Golden Eagles put together an18-3 run that completely changed the momentum. Dillard had eight of his points in the flurry.
The Bucs missed 11 of their first 15 shots in the half, while the Golden Eagles made 10 of their first 14. The lead eventually grew to 57-44.
“Tennessee Tech played very well the first 10 minutes of the second half,” said Bartow. “We were abysmal.”
Cooley led the Bucs back, however, with nine of his 17 points down the stretch. Eight unanswered points – four by Cooley and four by Marcus Dubose – made it 64-62 with 22 seconds left.
Tech point guard Jeremiah Samarrippas was fouled and made only one of two free throws with 14 seconds left to give the Bucs a chance. They wanted a quick two-pointer or a good look at a three but got neither.
“Obviously we didn’t get the shot we wanted,” said Bartow.
The Bucs again struggled to make jump shots. They were 4 of 15 on 3-pointers, lowering their season total to 7 of 31, and 22 of 56 (39.3 percent) from the field overall.
They did balance out the scoring, with four players netting at least a dozen points. Dubose led the way with 19, while Hunter Harris had 14 and Lester Wilson 12.
Wilson, the redshirt freshman, had led them in the Virginia Tech game with 20 points. And he came off the bench and gave them instant offense again Saturday, scoring five in a 16-0 run that put the Bucs in front 24-17 with five minutes left in the first half.
“We had a good little run there,” said Bartow. “Things flowed a little better.”
It didn’t last, of course, and pretty soon Dillard and company were back in charge.
At 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds, Dillard led the Ohio Valley Conference in rebounding last season (8.7) and was fourth in scoring (17.3). He had 16 points and six rebounds in an 83-74 victory over the Bucs in Cookeville.
The Eagles lost their other top players to graduation – only four returnees played in a game last year -- so now Dillard is carrying the load. And carrying it well.
“He’s just a tough son of a gun,” said Steve Payne, Tech’s second-year head coach. “He wasn’t a very good shooter when he first came to us, but he’s worked on his game and has developed into one. He has a high basketball IQ and competes every day.
“I just love coaching him.”
The Golden Eagles also got 11 points apiece from Samarrippas and Dennis Ogbe. They shot 65 percent from the field in the second half to finish at 53.2 for the game, and also held a 34-26 edge on the boards.
The all-time series between the teams is now 36-35 in ETSU’s favor.
“We hadn’t won here in my 11 years,” said Payne, who was an assistant coach for nine years. “Even our 2005 team that won the OVC came up here and lost. They’re just always hard to guard, and you always worry about them hitting threes and going on runs. We were able to get a lead today and hold on.”
The Bucs will move on to Charleston Southern in search of their first victory Tuesday night, and they hope Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard will be able to play. The junior forward injured his ankle in practice Monday and was a spectator against the Golden Eagles.
They also need more production at point guard. Freshman Petey McClain started there again Saturday but had no points, one assist and four fouls in 16 minutes.
“It will come together; I’m not sure at what point,” said Bartow. “Right now it’s a little frustrating.”