Maybe there’s some life in this East Tennessee State basketball team after all.
The Bucs climbed out of a huge hole in the second half Saturday and raced past Atlantic Sun Conference leader Florida Gulf Coast 85-75. They trailed by 19 with 16½ minutes left but were in front for good 10 minutes later.
“I’ve been here 10 years,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow, “and I can’t remember a guttier, tougher comeback.”
The point production was a veritable explosion for the Bucs, whose 70 points two nights earlier in a loss to Stetson represented their high-water mark against Division I competition. They almost got their season average of 57 in the second half alone.
The Bucs shot 52 percent from the field for the second straight game — they were 9 of 18 on 3-pointers — and were again in single digits with turnovers (8). They also went 22 of 25 (88 percent) from the foul line.
Coming in, the Bucs were the worst-shooting team in the league, much as their 3-13 overall record suggested. But here they are now at 2-2 in the A-Sun, which is already a scramble after Saturday losses by favorites Mercer and South Carolina Upstate.
Every team in the league has at least two losses, and the Bucs are in the mix.
“We’ve had a tough year with a lot of setbacks,” said Bartow. “But I thought once we got into conference we’d have a chance. We’re starting to figure it out a little offensively. Our turnovers are down, our field-goal percentage is up and our points are up.
“We really played a strong last 15 minutes today.”
Few could have seen it coming after the Eagles made nine 3-pointers in the first half and led 45-32. They finished with 14, including five by Sherwood Brown.
Maybe it’s the lights. The Bucs have surrendered 39 treys in the three games since a new lighting system was installed in the Dome. (Earlier, the Florida Gulf Coast women set a new NCAA record with 22 3-pointers against the Lady Bucs.)
The Eagles (12-7, 4-2) were sitting pretty when Brown’s fourth bomb gave them a 55-36 lead with 16:44 left. Some fans, in fact, headed to the exits, perhaps to watch Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
But a funny thing happened: the threes quit falling for the Eagles and the Bucs stormed back.
They rallied with an unlikely lineup that included Petey McClain and Mario Stramaglia, the freshman guards from Alabama. McClain has been hobbling all season with ankle injuries, while Stramaglia has simply been sitting and watching.
On this day, they fueled the game-changing comeback. Was it an Alabama thing?
“They were good together tonight,” said Bartow. “They’re both bulldogs. We’ve known that with Petey. With Mario, it’s tough when you’re sitting, but he’s a very feisty player. He may have been the hero of the game.”
Still wearing a mask for a broken nose, Stramaglia had a season-high 14 points and five rebounds in 22 minutes. McClain finished with 10 points, eight assists and three steals in 32 minutes. Those were also season highs.
“It’s good to know we can step it up, make some big plays and win the game,” said McClain. “We guarded, got all the 50/50 balls and hit the boards hard. It was a great win.”
The young point guard started the comeback with a leaner in the lane. Stramaglia followed with a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws. Then it was a three-point play by McClain and a runner by Stramaglia.
When Jarvis Jones capped the 14-2 run with a jumper, the Bucs trailed 57-50 with 12:28 left.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Christophe Varidel, who clicked his heels on all four of his treys as he ran back downcourt, promptly restored the Eagles’ lead to 13. But the Bucs wouldn’t back down, scoring 18 of the next 21 points. Another jumper by Jones gave ETSU the lead for good at 70-68 with 4:51 left.
Gulf Coast still had a chance in the final minute. A 3-pointer by Brown and two free throws by Chase Fieler with 45 seconds to go made it a 77-75 game. Varidel then fouled in the backcourt – “a poor decision,” Eagles coach Andy Enfield said later – and McClain calmly buried two free throws.
Gulf Coast wouldn’t score again.
“There was very little coaching the last 15 minutes,” said Bartow. “That was five guys competing their tails off, five guys going to battle.”
The Bucs wrapped up the victory by making their last 10 free throws; they also shot 60 percent from the field in the second half while scoring 53 points.
Enfield couldn’t help but note the disparity at the line, where his team was 9 of 12.
“They initiated a lot of contact,” said Enfield. “Lester Wilson, who played a terrific game, had no fouls. My guy (Bernard Thompson) fouls out.
“They certainly made some shots to get momentum and deserved to win. But we contributed as much to their win as they did.”
Wilson led all scorers with 21 points, and Jones had 18. John Walton chipped in with eight points and five rebounds, drawing praise from Bartow for “making plays I’ve never seen John Walton make.”
Brown collected 17 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Eagles. They also got double-figure scoring from Varidel (14), Fieler (12) and Eric McKnight (11). Brett Comer didn’t score but dished out 10 assists.
The Bucs now head to Georgia for a couple of games. They’ll play at Mercer on Thursday night and Kennesaw State on Saturday.