The learning process continues tonight for the East Tennessee State basketball team when it takes on Georgia.
The Bucs learned a valuable lesson in their last outing: They can overcome adversity, on the court as well as off.
ETSU overcame the suspensions of two starting senior guards and a 20-point first-half deficit on Tuesday night to beat Charleston Southern 59-57 for their first win of the season. A day earlier, Sheldon Cooley and Marcus Dubose were arrested on drug-related charges and suspended indefinitely, and the rest of the team responded.
“We were told during practice and everybody was down,” said Lester Wilson, who is quickly becoming the Bucs’ go-to guy on offense. “Those are two brothers of ours. We look at this as a brotherhood. We have fraternities around here but I look at this like one as well. We’re just as tight.
“It was hard for us to swallow that at the time, but we knew that we still had to be productive. Everyone’s on scholarship and you’re not here if you can’t play. So we know we have enough firepower that if we’re down we can still do it.”
ETSU is 2-1 all-time against Georgia, having won the last meeting, 78-56, in 2007 in Hawaii.
Tonight will be the Bulldogs’ fifth game in 12 days. They’ve lost the previous four. That stretch included losses to No. 1 Indiana (66-53) and No. 11 UCLA (60-56) in the Progressive Legends Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in addition to home defeats to Youngstown State and Southern Miss.
“They have SEC talent, SEC size,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “Any time you go on the road to play a school from a BCS conference, you’ve obviously got to play a great game. If we play a great game, hopefully we’ll be in a position to have a chance to win it.”
Georgia was leading Indiana 38-34 in the second half before the Hoosiers went on a 19-4 run to put the game away. The Bulldogs’ only victory was a 68-62 decision over Jacksonville.
Kentavius Caldwell-Pope, a 6-5 sophomore guard, is the only Georgia player scoring in double figures. He’s averaging 18.2 points a game while also leading the team in rebounding, steals and minutes.
ETSU has the momentum of the rousing victory over a Charleston Southern team picked to win the Big South Conference in its favor. Charleston Southern jumped ahead 35-15 before ETSU made its comeback and won it on a put-back by John Walton with 3.7 seconds left. The Bucs’ starting lineup included three freshmen.
“It was a huge win for us,” Bartow said. “It gives us a confidence boost. To be down, fighting adversity like we were, on the road ... it makes you feel better.
“We showed a lot of character, a lot of toughness, a lot of heart. We defended great in the second half. Everybody made plays and everybody contributed.”
ETSU held Charleston Southern to 29 percent shooting, the first time a Bucs’ opponent has shot below 30 percent in almost four years.
The Bucs will likely need at least that much effort in tonight’s game at Stegeman Coliseum even though Georgia’s record isn’t impressive.
“Georgia will be a hard game, but at least we have a little momentum,” Bartow said.
With Cooley out of the picture, the point guard position will be left to freshman Petey McClain, who had seven assists while playing all 40 minutes in ETSU’s last game.
“Petey’s just gonna get better and better, but he’s got a lot of work to do,” Bartow said.
Wilson, a red-shirt freshman from Knoxville, had 26 points against Charleston Southern and leads the Bucs in scoring at 19.3 points a game. He has made 10 of 20 shots from 3-point range.
“Coach was expecting this out of me, but I think they’ve been surprised,” Wilson said. “Last year at this time, I think he was worried about me. This year, he’s become a big fan. They knew I was a scorer. I think they have confidence in me.”
Dubose was averaging 15.5 points a game while Cooley was averaging 9.5 and leading the team in assists.