MACON, Ga. — The record says East Tennessee State could be in for a short stay at the Atlantic Sun Conference basketball tournament.
The Bucs, however, packed for the whole weekend just in case.
ETSU (10-21) is seeded sixth in the tournament and takes on third-seeded Stetson in the quarterfinals today at 2:30 p.m. The tournament is being held at Mercer’s Hawkins Arena.
“We’re going down to win the tournament,” ETSU guard Rashawn Rembert said. “I’ve seen a lot of comebacks from our team. I’ve seen a lot of persistence, games where we’ve had great spurts. We just have to string it all together.”
Finding consistency, something that has been lacking all season, seems to be the Bucs’ motto this week.
“For us to win the tournament, we’d obviously have to play our best basketball of the year,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “I don’t think we’d have to do anything we haven’t done. But we’d have to find some consistency and put 120 minutes together, if we get that far.”
Considering the Bucs have won two games in a row only once all season, expecting them to win three in three days seems a little much. But if recent history is any indicator, they have a chance to advance. The sixth-seeded team has made the championship game in each of the last three years.
While ETSU comes in with its worst record in years — and Bartow’s first 20-loss season in 16 years as a head coach — the Hatters haven’t exactly lit it up. Their record under second-year coach Casey Alexander is 14-15. They haven’t won a game in this tournament since 2006 and haven’t had a winning record since the 2000-01 season.
Stetson didn’t qualify for the last three A-Sun tournaments.
“We gotta win,” ETSU forward Hunter Harris said. “The past is the past.We have to put it all behind us. We have to put together two good halves and win this game. It’s clutch time and we plan on getting it done.”
Part of any optimism the Bucs might have comes from a regular-season visit to Stetson. The Hatters led 54-34 with 12:10 remaining before ETSU went on a tear. Eventually, Rembert’s 3-pointer with six seconds left capped an amazing 62-61 victory.
Stetson won the other meeting, 72-70 in Johnson City.
“We expect another close one with them,” Harris said.
It was the only blown lead in the closing minutes all season for the Hatters. They’re 12-1 in games in which they’ve had the lead with five minutes remaining.
Stetson’s Adam Pegg was a first-team selection on the All A-Sun team, announced on Tuesday. He was also the league’s top scholar-athlete. The 6-foot-9, 260-pound senior averages 15.6 points per game. Junior guard Chris Perez, a second-team pick, averages 15.3, giving the Hatters the top 1-2 scoring punch in the conference.
Despite not having a true point guard on the roster, the Hatters average 16.5 assists per game, tops in the A-Sun and 10th in the country.
Senior guard Jarvis Jones leads ETSU, averaging 16.2 points per game. He was named to the second all-conference team. Lester Wilson is averaging 13.1 points and was chosen to the league’s all-freshman team.
The Bucs closed the regular season with an 88-56 home loss to USC Upstate.
ETSU began the season with two starters out when Jones was declared academically ineligible for the first semester and Lukas Poderis ruptured his Achille’s tendon in a preseason scrimmage. Then came the drug-related arrests of two more starters, Marcus Dubose and Sheldon Cooley, and things started to go haywire. Throw in a challenging non-conference schedule, and it was the perfect storm for failure.
The Bucs never really recovered, yet Bartow says his team will battle until the end.
“We’ve fought hard this year,” Bartow said. “We’ve obviously had a lot of obstacles and challenges. It’s been a unique year.
“We’ve had very few bad practices. We’ve had no attitudes. We’re just young and inexperienced and when we lost the guys we lost, there’s just not much there in terms of experience. That’s why we’re sitting here with 10 wins.”
ETSU has advanced to at least the A-Sun semifinals six years in a row and has won two of the last four A-Sun tournaments (2009 and ’10).
“We are a program that, at least staff wise, we’ve been able to win this, so we know going in we’re capable of winning,” Bartow said. “This team is so young. Most of these guys have never played in the conference tournament, so I don’t know how much value that has. But our program has been there. We’ve won it and we talk a lot about that. We’ll see.
“If we don’t play really, really well, then that’ll be it.”