The pieces suddenly appear to be falling into place for the East Tennessee State basketball team.
The Bucs further distanced themselves from that 0-4 start Saturday by shutting down Stephen F. Austin 66-58 at Freedom Hall. It was the first-ever meeting between the teams.
Rashawn Rembert spurred a game-changing run midway through the first half on his way to 18 points, and freshman A.J. Merriweather chipped in with 12 points and nine rebounds to lead ETSU.
The performance came on the heels of an 89-75 victory over Samford two nights earlier. So far the Bucs have had a ball in the Hall, with one date remaining.
“If we figure out a way to beat Marshall (next Saturday), I may beg Dr. Sander and Dr. Noland to play all our games here,” said coach Murry Bartow. “It’s an intimate building and intimate environment, and it creates a different feel. I would love to get a lot of people in here for Marshall.”
The announced attendance of 2,535 on Saturday was about the same as the three previous home games.
The Lumberjacks were coming off an overtime win Thursday night at Marshall, and were touted by Bartow as perhaps the toughest opponent his team would have seen to date.
He wasn’t backing away from that after sending the defending Southland Conference champs home to Nacogdoches, Texas with a 3-2 record.
“Stephen F. Austin is a really good team, and I thought this would be a really hard game,” said Bartow. “We fought our tails off.”
It looked like it might be a long day for the Bucs. The Lumberjacks knocked down four straight mid-range jumpers on their way to an 18-8 advantage after nine minutes.
But the momentum quickly shifted.
“We made a few adjustments in our zone,” said Bartow, crediting assistant coaches Bob Bolen and Thomas Carr. “We made it more difficult for them to get the ball into the elbow area. The zone was effective for us, so we stayed with it.”
Down 10, the Bucs clicked off the next 16 points to take the lead for good. Rembert, the junior guard, scored seven during the run.
It was a 32-26 game at the half, and the Lumberjacks never got closer than four the rest of the way.
“Coach had told us when we start to play well, we’ll start to win,” said Rembert. “We just weren’t gelling at first. It’s pretty much a chemistry thing, going hard for one another.”
Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard added 10 points and five rebounds for the Bucs, who made half of their 42 shots from the field and held a 20-8 advantage at the foul line. They shot 56 percent in the second half.
The unsung hero may have been point guard Petey McClain, who was strong with the ball and scored eight points to almost match his previous total for the season.
“In this game, he was probably the MVP,” said Bartow.
The Bucs got another energetic game from Merriweather. He scored seven of his points early in the second half, including a showtime dunk off a lob pass, as ETSU built a 13-point lead.
At 6-foot-2, Merriweather is averaging more than seven rebounds a game and shooting 50 percent from the field. He says the whole team is starting to figure things out.
“Our rebounding has gotten better,” he said, “and we’re sharing the ball a lot.”
The Bucs outrebounded the Lumberjacks 33-32 and clamped down defensively after the shaky start. SFA shot 39 percent from the field, including 4 of 23 from 3-point range, and was 8 of 15 at the foul line.
The toughest matchup for the Bucs was junior forward Jacob Parker, who had 19 points and 12 rebounds – seven on the offensive end – after going for 31 and 11, respectively, at Marshall.
Deshaunt Walker, with 13 points, was the only other SFA player to score in double figures.
The Lumberjacks were playing the last of four straight games on the road.