The East Tennessee State basketball team saved its worst for last.
The Bucs trailed South Carolina Upstate by 14 points after just five minutes Friday night, and the trouble only got deeper from there as the Spartans rolled to an 88-56 rout in the final regular-season game for both teams. It was ETSU’s worst Atlantic Sun Conference loss ever.
With a 10-21 record, the Bucs have tied the 1986-87 team for most losses in program history. Adding insult to injury, this one came in front of the largest crowd of the season (4,389) and a regional television audience.
“It was a very embarrassing performance,” said coach Murry Bartow. “I didn’t see it coming. We won our last game at Jacksonville, and we had a great week of practice.
“It’s pretty obvious we got whipped in every aspect of the game.”
Upstate coach Eddie Payne surely didn’t see it coming either, despite a 17-point victory in the first meeting this season. His team won just one game in February and was fresh off a 24-point loss at North Florida.
“We’ve been struggling on a variety of fronts,” said Payne. “Our confidence has been lacking, and we just got through coming off a whipping. But we played very good basketball tonight, particularly on defense. And when the ball goes in the basket, it makes everything look better.”
The Spartans unleashed a month of frustration by making 13 3-pointers, and they got a huge game from junior forward Torrey Craig. The league’s leading scorer poured in 26 points, with nine rebounds and five assists.
Craig made a half-dozen 3-pointers against the Bucs for the second time this season. Three of them came in that early blitz that gave the Spartans a 19-5 advantage.
The Bucs clawed back within five, but it was a 14-point game again, 39-25, by halftime . Upstate then ripped off 32 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
From there, it was just a question of how bad the final margin would be.
“The energy was terrible,” said junior forward Hunter Harris, who led the Bucs with 13 points. “We got beat on the glass, we had bad offense and defense. I’m at a loss for words … it was embarrassing.”
Upstate led by 41 with 8 ½ minutes left, and one had to think back to the Virginia Commonwealth game here in January, a 109-58 demolition that stands as ETSU’s worst loss ever. Could this one top that?
The game got a little closer with reserves on the floor, but the final margin easily eclipsed the 27-point loss the Bucs suffered against Belmont in the A-Sun championship game here in 2007.
“We tried to do a lot of things in the second half, and it all snowballed,” said Bartow. “I’m not sure I’ve felt as low as I do now.”
ETSU finished the conference schedule at 8-10 and will have to wait for today’s games to shake out before knowing their seeding for the tournament this week in Macon, Ga. It currently sits seventh in the standings, though Northern Kentucky isn’t eligible for postseason play.
Meanwhile, Upstate (15-16, 9-9) claimed the No. 5 seed with its victory and surely will head to Mercer with a new mindset. The Spartans had been picked in the preseason to challenge for a championship.
“This was a good one for us to build some confidence,” said Payne, “but I think Mercer has all the advantages down there. They’re a good team playing at home. The deck is stacked in their favor.”
Jarvis Jones scored 12 points in his final home game for the Bucs, most of them late. The team’s lone senior was 2 of 12 from the field and had five turnovers.
“It’s a big disappointment,” he said. “We just came out flat.”
Ty Greene, the former Bearden star, had 17 points, including four 3-pointers, and five assists for the Spartans. Adrian Rodgers chipped in with 12 points, and Ricardo Glenn had 10.
Upstate controlled the glass 42-29 and had 19 assists against nine turnovers.