HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — Even in a wire-to-wire job, victory tried to elude the East Tennessee State basketball team Monday night.
The Bucs didn’t score a field goal for the last nine minutes but held on with free throws and defense to defeat Northern Kentucky 49-44 and snap a nine-game losing streak.
A loss in the first-ever meeting between the teams would have matched ETSU’s worst start of the modern era. Instead, they go home at 3-12 after a split of their first Atlantic Sun Conference road trip.
“It was a big win that we certainly needed,” said coach Murry Bartow. “Now we have to go home and keep getting better.”
The Bucs raced out to a 9-1 lead and were still in front 26-20 at the break after shooting 55 percent from the field.
It was a 40-31 game after a runner by Rashawn Rembert with 9:18 to play. From there it was all free throws.
Coming off a 6-for-15 performance two nights earlier at Lipscomb, the Bucs made 9 of their last 11 to keep the Norse at bay.
Jarvis Jones clinched the victory, the team’s first in five weeks, with two tosses with 11 seconds left. The team’s only senior says he went to the line with nothing in mind.
“I wasn’t thinking,” said Jones, who finished with 12 points and hit all four of his free throws. “When you think, you miss.”
Said Bartow, “If you could pick one off our team, you probably want him up there.”
Northern Kentucky had a possession down by three in the closing seconds, but a lob at the rim on an inbounds pass was long and Jones corralled the ball. His free throws sent the Norse (3-9) to their third close loss in their inaugural season in the A-Sun.
“We were right there with 30 seconds left in all three,” said coach Dave Bezold. “Today the last seven possessions we have four careless turnovers. We just have a very thin margin to be successful, and we’ve gotta keep grinding.”
That’s been the story all season for the Bucs, who hadn’t won since routing Milligan College on Nov. 29. None of the games were close until they lost 60-56 at Lipscomb on Saturday night.
“We wanted to win so bad,” said junior forward Hunter Harris, who matched Jones for team-high scoring honors, with 12 points. “It’s been a long time, but we kept fighting and found a way tonight. We’ll take a win any way we can get it.”
The Bucs ended up shooting 45 percent from the field -- well above their season average of 37 percent -- and were 13 of 17 at the foul line. They also held a 30-23 rebounding edge.
Lester Wilson scored eight of his 11 points in the first half to help the Bucs keep the lead. Four came during a 12-3 run late in the half.
Eshaunte “Bear” Jones led the Norse with 18 points and had half their points with eight minutes left. He was the team’s only double-figure scorer.
Chad Jackson scored eight down the stretch to give the Norse a chance.
The Bucs had to play the second half without point guard Petey McClain, who missed the first seven games of the losing streak with an ankle injury.
“Defensively our gameplan worked, but offensively we weren’t great,” said Bartow. “We’re much smoother when Petey’s out there, but he rolled an ankle and wasn’t able to play the second half. He’s been playing on two bad ankles, not one.”
The Bucs hope to have the freshman back in the lineup for Stetson on Thursday night.
Notes: With a crowd of 1,798, Northern Kentucky passed the million mark in all-time home attendance.
This is its fourth season in the Bank of Kentucky Center.
The 9,400-seat, $60 million building is a showpiece that was a reliable home court during the Norse’s days in Division II. Their record there is now 53-8.
“This is a great venue,” Bartow said as he gazed around from the stands afterward. “They have a very well-coached team, and you give (Bezold) and his staff time, with this building, they’re going to be good for a long time. This could be one of the top 100 arenas in the country.”