Two weeks into the new basketball season, East Tennessee State has come up with more questions than answers.
The Bucs dropped to 0-4 Tuesday night with a 76-66 home loss to Winthrop. They rallied from 14 down early in the second half to take the lead, only to watch the Eagles fly away again.
ETSU coach Murry Bartow went with a different starting lineup for the fourth straight game, and eight different players saw double-figure minutes. The Bucs played more zone defense, but still couldn’t get stops when they had to have them.
All in all, it was a fairly disjointed performance.
“We have no identity right now,” said Bartow. “Are we a zone team? A man team? Who’s starting?
“We’re going with a lot of different looks … we’ve got to try to get some stability.”
The Bucs suffered their first double-digit loss despite shooting 64 percent from the field in the second half. They trailed 35-25 at the break and fell further behind before the momentum swung their way.
But it didn’t last long, and the Eagles eventually matched them point for point in the second half.
“We spent a lot of energy,” said senior forward Hunter Harris, who led the Bucs with 18 points and seven rebounds. “Turnovers got us, and offensive rebounds. We couldn’t get it together.”
Despite the apparent depth, Bartow said the run to catch up simply took a physical toll.
“We got fatigued, no question, and didn’t play well down the stretch,” he said. “We made a great run, but the next thing you know, we’re down 10 again.”
The Bucs appeared to be going nowhere fast, and a home crowd of 2,372 was quiet after the Eagles took a 48-34 lead with 16 minutes left. Suddenly, Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard caught fire.
The senior forward hit a pair of 3-pointers and another jumper to start a 15-point run by the Bucs. When Rashawn Rembert buried a three at the 12:43 mark, they led 49-48.
“It felt good to make shots, but we couldn’t get stops when we needed them,” said Gadsden-Gilliard, who scored 16 points.
Indeed, Andre Smith answered Rembert’s go-ahead basket with a 3-pointer of his own just 20 seconds later, and Winthrop would never look back.
A lay-in by Joab Jerome restored the Winthrop lead to double figures, at 62-51, and the Eagles weren’t seriously threatened in the last eight minutes.
Jerome, the only senior to suit up for coach Pat Kelsey’s team, scored 18 points and had a near-perfect shooting night. He was 7 of 8 from the field and made four 3-pointers, with his only miss coming on a heave as the clock expired in the closing minute.
“Joey is our heart and soul in terms of being a leader,” said Kelsey, who is in his second season at Winthrop. “He’s not a kid that passes the eye test; he’s not a beautiful athlete. But he’s productive and he’s tough.
“Kids like Joey Jerome give your team courage.”
Winthrop also got 12 points and nine rebounds from James Bourne, 11 points from Keon Johnson and 10 from Smith. They shot 49 percent from the field and held a 36-31 rebounding edge.
Jalen Riley chipped in with 12 points for ETSU.
The victory was the third in four games for the Eagles – their first 3-1 start in six years -- with the lone defeat coming at VCU, 92-71. They defeated USC Upstate, one of the expected contenders in the Atlantic Sun Conference by eight a week earlier.
The Bucs will now turn their attention to a Thursday night game at Freedom Hall against Samford, their soon-to-be Southern Conference sister. They’ll finish a three-game homestand there Saturday against Stephen F. Austin.
At 0-4, the collar is starting to get tighter.
“We’ve got enough good players to win,” said Bartow. “When we starting playing consistently well for 40 minutes, we’ll start beating people.”