CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard carried the East Tennessee State basketball team to the brink of another upset in Halton Arena, but the Bucs couldn’t finish without him.
The senior forward fouled out with a minute left after scoring a career-high 31 points and Charlotte held on for an 80-75 victory in the season opener for both teams Friday night.
The Bucs had won here two years ago on a three-pointer at the buzzer by Jarvis Jones, and it looked like things might fall their way again. Lukas Poderis stood at the foul line with seven seconds left and a chance to tie the game at 76. Poderis swished his first free throw but the second rattled out and the 49ers made four tosses in the closing seconds to secure the victory in front of crowd of 4,796.
“I was hopeful ... We were right there,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “We went toe-to-toe with a Conference USA team that won 21 games a year ago. Coming off a 10-win season We’re a whole different animal this year.”
The Bucs had been something of a beast for the 49ers, beating them three straight times to takes a 3-1 lead in the series. The loss spoiled a remarkable performance for Gadsden-Gilliard.
The 6-6, 250-pound forward unveiled a broad repertoire of shotmaking with four 3-pointers, power moves to the basket and seven free throws. He was 10 of 16 from the field.
The former junior college transfer scored in double figures only five times last season, with a high of 16 against USC Upstate, and average 5.1 ppg.
“I tried to be assertive tonight,” said Gadsden-Gilliard. “Our coaches told me they couldn’t match up with me. If they put a small guy on me, I was going to go over them. And if the put a big guy on me, I was going to go around him. I just got in a groove.”
“I just wish I could have been there at the end.”
KGG kept the Bucs close thought the game. His 3-pointer at the buzzer of the first half cut Charlotte’s lead to 34-31, and he scored 13 of his team 15 points during the stretch early in the second half, when the 49ers were threatening to pull way. They were never able to push their lead to double figures.
“I thought Kinard was fantastic,” said Bartow. “We don’t expect him to get us 31 every night but he’s versatile guy, who has really worked hard. Tonight he played some 3, some 4, and some 1. He really has a good basketball IQ.”
The Bucs also got 11 points from Rashawn Rembert and 10 apiece from Lester Wilson and A.J. Merriweather.
They didn’t help their own cause with 19 turnovers and were outrebounded 45-35. Merriweather, the freshman wing, led the team with seven boards.
Much as Gadsden-Gilliard had his way, the 49ers had a formidable big man of their own. Mike Thorne Jr., a 6-10, 254-pound sophomore scored 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting and grabbed 9 rebounds. He also fouled out late.
Pierriea Henry matched him with 17 points, though he was 4 for 15 from the field and added eight rebounds and five steals. Shawn Lester went for 15 points and nine rebounds.
The 49ers were limited to 39 percent shooting from the field including 2 of 17 from 3-point range. They did cash in at the foul line, outscoring the Bucs 28-16.
“I was proud of the guys, the way they fought and scrapped to win,” said Charlotte coach Alan Major. “That was a hard fought game. East Tennessee is a very good basketball team. They’re an up-tempo team. You can clearly see what they’re trying to do in terms of style of play. They played well tonight’
The Bucs return home to host Morehead State on Tuesday night, and they at least left town thinking that better times are ahead.
“We went right down to the wire with them, and that’s a good feeling,” said Wilson. “We know we’re a much better team from last year. We had too many turnovers and left a lot points out there.
“We want to win games likes this, not come close.”