John Walton isn’t usually one of the top offensive options for the East Tennessee State basketball team. On Thursday night, he was the main man.
Walton was nearly flawless, scoring a career-high 23 points as the Bucs beat Kennesaw State 79-70 at the Minidome. It gave ETSU its first winning streak of the season and its first victory on a Thursday night.
“John Walton was the start of our comeback at Stetson and he was really the MVP of our team tonight,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “Very proud. He’s a great young guy. He’s improving. John is like a sponge. You can be tough on him, yell at him, and he takes it all in.”
Jarvis Jones added 22 points and Rashawn Rembert tied his career high with 18.
Walton made 8 of 9 of his field goal attempts and all seven of his free throws. He surpassed his previous best output of 15 points against Milligan College when he swished a spinning floater with 5:00 left in the first half that gave him 17. At that point, he was 6 for 6 from the field and 5 for 5 from the line.
“It felt real good,” Walton said. “I don’t ask for a lot of shots. I try to let the game come to me. Tonight it did. The difference was my teammates did a good job of finding me when I was open.”
ETSU improved to 9-18 overall, 7-7 in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Walton’s performance was a pleasant surprise for the Bucs, considering he had scored in double figures in only one of ETSU’s last 13 games and came into the game averaging 5.0 points a game. His night included three blocked shots and a pair of dunks, one on an alley-oop pass from Jones.
“I didn’t see anything that surprised me,” Rembert said about Walton. “He does it all the time in practice. He’s not one to beg for the ball. Tonight he ran and played defense and got some open looks and finished.”
Jones made 5 of 6 shots from 3-point range and capped his night with a dunk with 30 seconds left. He also had five assists.
Walton, a 6-7 sophomore, made his 14th start of the season. He took Lester Wilson’s place in the starting lineup as the Bucs tried to shore up the interior of their zone defense.
The Bucs shot 53 percent — 62 percent in the first half — and made 10 of 21 from 3-point range. They led by as many as 17 points in the first half before Kennesaw State went on a late 8-0 run. Rembert’s short jumper with two seconds left gave ETSU a 41-31 halftime lead.
Kennesaw State cut the deficit to four in the second half when Markeith Cummings’ back-to-back baskets made it 51-47 with 12:31 left. Walton then made two free throws, his first points in 12 1/2 minutes, and Rembert and Jones hit 3-pointers to slow the Owls’ run. Suddenly, the Bucs were back up by 12.
“Every time the game got close, we were able to punch it back up,” Bartow said.
ETSU’s Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard had one of the most productive two-point performances a player could have. The 6-5 bruiser only attempted one shot in 37 minutes, but he had 10 rebounds and five assists.
Kennesaw State fell to 3-22, 2-11 in the A-Sun.
“Records can be very deceiving,” Bartow said. “This is a Kennesaw team that just beat Jacksonville and already has beaten Mercer. They’ve been good on the road.”
Fittingly enough on Valentine’s Day, Delbert Love led the Owls with 22 points. Cummings, the league’s leading scorer, and Nigel Pruitt added 11 each. Aaron Anderson had 13 rebounds.
Rembert wasted little time in extending his streak of consecutive games with a 3-pointer to 24. He made his first shot of the night, a 3-pointer from the right corner.
It’s the latest in a season that the Bucs have posted their first winning streak since 1985, when they did it in the 26th and 27th games of the season, the same as this year.
“We want to keep it rolling,” Rembert said. “Our coach says once you get one, and you get two, start rolling like that, then you’re unstoppable.”
The Bucs return to action Saturday, when the play host to Mercer.