MACON, Ga. — Stetson coach Casey Alexander said what everybody was thinking after his team eliminated East Tennessee State in the Atlantic Sun Conference basketball tournament.
“It was really ugly for the first 20 minutes. It wasn’t very fun to watch,” Alexander said about a first half in which one team couldn’t make a shot and the other couldn’t hold onto the ball.
While Alexander’s team got better after the break, it remained really ugly for the Bucs until the final horn. ETSU couldn’t buy a shot and gave up a halftime lead, and the Hatters advanced with a 67-46 victory at Hawkins Arena.
The defeat closed the book on one of the more painful seasons in ETSU basketball history. The sixth-seeded Bucs finished 10-22, the most losses the program has ever had in a season.
Third-seeded Stetson (15-15) advanced to tonight’s semifinal, where it will take on second-seeded Florida Gulf Coast. It was the Hatters’ first A-Sun tournament win in seven years.
A very competitive, if not aesthetically pleasing, first half that had four ties and seven lead changes ended with the Bucs up 24-21. Stetson then opened the second half with a 31-6 run to put it away.
“In the second half, they beat us in every phase of the game, coaching, playing, execution, free throws, rebounding, defense, offense,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “They just snowballed us.”
The Bucs made just six of their first 28 shots, yet still held a 19-15 lead thanks to a stifling defense that forced 10 first-half turnovers, including seven steals and numerous other deflections. Six of the steals came from interior defenders in the zone.
“I think it was more us than their zone,” said Adam Pegg, who led Stetson with 17 points. “We were throwing the ball all over the place. It’s something that’s been plaguing us all year.”
When Rashawn Rembert drilled a 3-pointer from the left corner with 1:40 left in the first half, ETSU’s lead was eight. Stetson scored the final five points of the half, cutting the Bucs’ advantage to 24-21 at intermission. The final-minute flurry helped the Hatters’ mood in the locker room and set them up for the knockout punch that was about to come.
“We deserved to be down by more than three, the way it felt,” Alexander said.
That ETSU even had the lead was quite a feat considering its was shooting 25 percent (8 for 32), and a high percentage of the misses came right at the rim. The five starters were 3 for 21 in the first half, including an 0-for-5 performance from Hunter Harris, 1-for-6 from Jarvis Jones and 1-for-5 from Lester Wilson.
“I felt we should have been up 12, 15 at halftime,” Bartow said. “We probably missed 10 shots within three inches of the rim. If we make those, we’re up 12 or 15.”
Still, a lead is a lead. And during a season with so many losses, it was something positive.
“We were just thinking to ourselves that we’re up by three and we’re playing horrible on the offensive end,” Wilson said. “All we got to do is get our offense clicking and it’s gonna be a nice little win for us.”
It never happened, as the Bucs missed their first five shots of the second half. And then the accuracy troubles spread to the free throw line, where ETSU’s shooting became especially foul. With seven minutes left in the game, the Bucs’ second-half percentages were 13 from the field and 17 from the line.
Jones finished 4 of 17, missing all seven of his 3-point tries, to get his 11 points. Wilson also had 11, going 4 for 12 with three successful 3-pointers.
“Coach always tells us, good players, they have a short memory,” Wilson said. “Just keep doing what you do, and if you’re not hitting, either shoot your way out of it or do something different. You have to be confident in the stuff that you put up. Every time I shot, I thought it was gonna go. I wasn’t shooting thinking about the last shot. It just wasn’t a good night.”
By the time the game ended, the Bucs had worked their shooting back up to 25 percent. They made 4 of 23 from 3-point range and were 12 of 25 from the line, including 6 of 17 in the second half.
“When you’re missing shots, you want to try to execute better and get better shots or get to the free throw line,” Bartow said. “And we were getting to the line. Seventeen free thows in a half, that’s a lot of free throws. And we make a whopping 6 out of 17.”
After missing his first five early, Harris didn’t attempt another shot the rest of the day.
ETSU finished with a total of five assists. Stetson had 14 with three players with four apiece. The hatters also out-rebounded the Bucs 43-30 and shot 49 percent from the field.
Willie Green added 13 points and 13 rebounds for the Hatters.
Jones played his last game in an ETSU uniform. He’s the only senior the team will lose.
“I had a great time,” he said. “I’ll remember everybody. I made a lot of friends.”