NASHVILLE — The East Tennessee State basketball team had a chance to win Saturday night at Lipscomb. Otherwise, the start of conference play looked a lot like most other losses that have fueled a nearly five-week drought.
The Bucs fell to the Bisons 60-56 in their Atlantic Sun opener at Allen Arena. Again, they were unable to muster much offense while suffering their ninth straight loss.
Even against a team that had been allowing 78 points per game, they fell short of 60 for the eighth time in the streak. Their 2-12 start is the program’s worst in 37 years.
“After the last month, it was encouraging just to be in the game tonight,” said coach Murry Bartow. “It’s been all the way back to the Charleston Southern game (on Nov. 20) where we were in position to win.”
Coming off a 109-58 blowout against Virginia Commonwealth that matched their worst loss ever, the Bucs had the lead with 10 minutes to play. They had rallied from an 11-point deficit behind Lester Wilson, who scored all 16 of his points in the second half, and finally went in front on a Petey McClain layup.
But the Bison quickly responded with a 13-2 run of their own and held on at the end by making eight of their last nine free throws. A potential game-tying 3-pointer by Wilson was long with six seconds left.
The victory was the 300th of Lipscomb coach Scott Sanderson’s career. The milestone had been on hold as the Bison lost three in a row, including A-Sun games at North Florida and Jacksonville.
“We feel very fortunate to win tonight, because every one of these games with ETSU comes down to the wire,” said Sanderson. “And we haven’t won many of them.”
Both teams shot 41 percent from the field, and the game was essentially won — or lost — at the foul line. The Bison went 18 of 25 while the Bucs were 6 of 15.
“We have these stretches in games, bad runs where we just can’t score,” said Bartow. “I thought the pace of the game tonight was better, but we still struggled to make shots. And free throws killed us.”
It was certainly a tale of two halves for Wilson. The Bucs’ leading scorer missed the only shot he attempted before halftime, then clicked off 11 points in just over four minutes early in the second half.
The redshirt freshman finished with four 3-pointers and was 6 of 12 from the field.
“They wanted me to get more shots, and I got more opportunities in the second half,” he said. “We got back into the game.”
Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard picked up his scoring with 11 points. The junior forward hadn’t scored more than six since that Charleston Southern game.
Gadsden-Gilliard also had seven rebounds and three assists.
“It was a little bit my part and a lot of coach’s part,” he said of suddenly becoming more assertive. “We had a meeting, and he told me I was underachieving to his expectations. He said we were going to do more to get me involved.”
Jarvis Jones, with 11 points, was the only other Buc in double figures. Hunter Harris, a Nashville native, scored two quick baskets but no more. He eventually fouled out with four points and one rebound in 26 minutes.
Lipscomb (6-8) was led by Deonte Alexander’s 19 points, five rebounds and three assists. The Bison also showcased their 6-10, 280-pound freshman center Stephen Hurt, who muscled his way for 17 points and 13 rebounds.
Hurt played his high school ball at Siegel in Murfreesboro, and Sanderson is obviously thrilled to have him.
“He’s played 14 college games, and sometimes I expect him to be Superman,” said Sanderson. “He’s going to be a fine player.”
The Bucs will try to break their losing streak again Monday night at Northern Kentucky, the conference newcomer.