The East Tennessee State basketball team doesn’t have to stress about being winless anymore. An 89-75 victory over Samford took care of that on Thursday night.
Now the Bucs face a more daunting challenge: beating an opponent that may be better than any of the others during that 0-4 start to the season.
Stephen F. Austin visits Freedom Hall Civic Center today for the first-ever meeting between the teams. The Lumberjacks of Nacogdoches, Texas are 3-1 after an 80-73 overtime victory at Marshall on Thursday night.
Their lone loss was a 10-point affair at Texas.
“They could be the best team we will have played to this point,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said Friday. “They won 28 games a year ago and played in the NCAA tournament. They lost a couple of key guys, but they’re still a very good basketball team.
“They’re a smash-mouth type of team – tough, physical and really guard you. We’ll have our hands full.”
At least the Bucs aren’t wearing that collar anymore.
Down by seven to Samford with less than 14 minutes left, they suddenly got points from all directions to bury the Bulldogs. They scored 55 in the second half.
“The second half, certainly the last 13 or 14 minutes, we played with a lot of energy,” said Bartow. “If we could bottle that, we’d really have something. Right now we’re just trying to get better each time out, and we took a step in that direction last night.”
The Bucs had five players score at least 13 points apiece. Lester Wilson led the way with 20, while Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard had 18, Jalen Riley 16, A.J. Merriweather 15 and Rashawn Rembert 13.
“I thought last night the two guys that made a huge difference, who we hadn’t been getting much out of, were Lukas (Poderis) and Lester,” said Bartow. “Lukas just played with a lot of life, and Lester got hot early and really played well.”
Wilson came off the bench to score 10 quick points. He ended up 8 of 13 from the field in 28 minutes.
The redshirt sophomore had scored only five points total in the previous two games.
“The time that you get, you’ve got to make the best of it,” said Wilson. “This whole day, coach was texting me, telling me he was going to get me going again. He knows what I can do, and the team has faith in me.”
Gadsden-Gilliard grabbed 12 rebounds, posting his first career double-double, and added six assists. At 6-6 and 250 pounds, he served as the point guard down the stretch.
That’s a position that remains fluid from minute to minute.
Petey McClain continues to start, but the sophomore has scored nine points all season and is shooting 23 percent from the field. Riley, the junior-college transfer, is more of a shooting guard, while Harris is big and strong but is a freshman with an unreliable jumper.
“It’s still early in the year and we’re still trying to figure that position out,” said Bartow. “We’ve got four guys who can rotate in and out, and they’re all four very different players.”
Almost to a man, the Bucs were quick to embrace Freedom Hall, their home away from home for three games this season -- and likely many more in the future.
Wilson said the building “is 10 times more like a basketball arena” than the Dome and he’d like to play home games there the rest of his career. Gadsden-Gilliard echoed those sentiments.
“I like the atmosphere,” he said. “It’s tighter and more together … in the Dome it’s kind of big and spaced out.”
The announced attendance Thursday night was 2,640, which is about what the Bucs attracted to their first two games at the Dome.
Notes: Jacob Parker had a monster game for Stephen F. Austin in the Marshall victory, collecting 31 points on 12-of-15 shooting and 11 rebounds. The 6-6 junior leads the team in scoring (17.0) and rebounding (7.0.)
Senior guards Desmond Haymon (12.8) and Deshaunt Walker (11.3) are also scoring in double figures for the ‘Jacks, the defending champions of the Southland Conference.