Brittany Starling took one for the team, literally, in USC Upstate’s 60-56 win over the East Tennessee State women’s basketball team on Saturday afternoon at the MSHA Center.
With nine seconds left and the Lady Spartans leading 58-56, Starling was battling for position with ETSU’s Tiana Burley when Burley suddenly punched her with an overhand right which sent her crumbling on the floor.
It led to a technical foul and ejection for Burley and a pair of free throws which essentially sewed up the game for Upstate. Burley will be suspended for the Lady Bucs’ opening game in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament. They’re seeded seventh and will take on No. 2 Stetson on Wednesday at 6 p.m in Macon, Ga.
“I’ve taken an elbow to the nose before, but it wasn’t on purpose,” said Starling, whose 15 points led Upstate. “I’ve never got punched in the face on purpose. When I hit the floor, I thought about it and I thought, ‘You know, they’re going to call that on her and I’m not going to do something stupid to get something called on me too.’ It was just frustration on her part, but I took one for the team, that’s for sure.”
It was an embarassing end for the Lady Bucs, and left head coach Karen Kemp with more questions than answers as her team fell to 8-17 on the season and 6-12 in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
“Definitely not the way to finish the regular season with conflict,” ETSU head coach Karen Kemp said. “They called it a flagrant two, which means she’s out the first game (of the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament). I’ve been coaching, a long time, since 1985 and I’ve never had to deal with this, a player actually being ejected from a game.
“I’m going to have to sit down and look at myself and how I’m going to handle that. I’m going to sit down with her and the decision whether she will play beyond that first game will be made once I sit down and watch it and see exactly what took place. It doesn’t matter. What she did was wrong and it’s unacceptable.”
There was obviously frustration on the ETSU side as the Lady Bucs held Upstate to just 4-of-27 from the field in the first half, but the Lady Spartans stayed alive with 13-of-16 shooting at the free-throw line. Upstate closed the first half on a 9-2 run to trail just 26-21 at the intermission.
The Lady Spartans (12-17, 8-11) continued the run early in the second half, a 16-2 run by the time it ended with Upstate holding a 28-26 lead.
They battled back and forth until Upstate took the lead for good on a jumper by Tyra Smith. Down just 58-56 after Destiny Mitchell’s put-back, hopes of a comeback ended a split-second later with Burley’s untimely punch.
Burley led the Lady Bucs with 12 points. The rest of the team said they just have to put the whole episode behind them.
“That hurts us, but we can’t sit there and harp on it,” junior point guard Shawn Randall said. “We just have to keep pushing into the A-Sun tournament. We just have to come together as a team since we won’t have Tiana.”
Overshadowed by the late-game antics was the fact it was the final home game for senior Tosha Austin. She finished with two points and four rebounds in 12 minutes of action.
Randall had nine points and 11 rebounds in the loss. Hitting just 19-of-66 (28.8 percent) from the field, and an even more paltry 3-of-22 from 3-point range, no one else scored more than eight points for the Lady Bucs.
Tee’Ara Copney matched Starling’s total with 15 points for Upstate, while former South Greene standout Shelby Hicks finished with nine points. Upstate head coach Tammy George credited her team for their intensity in the second half and Starling for keeping her cool after being knocked down.
“Sometimes, it’s a heated battle, a conference game and you’re fighting for position and things happen,” George said. “I was just glad she didn’t retaliate. That was big on her part.”