Jalen Riley is starting to come into his own, and the East Tennessee State basketball team is hoping to reap the benefits.
Riley played a key role in the Bucs’ first road victory of the season, an 80-74 decision at Austin Peay on Wednesday night. The 6-foot junior guard came off the bench to score 18 points, had the ball in his hands during crunch time and made several big 3-point shots to keep ETSU ahead.
“He was a huge spark,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “He gave us a huge lift, really in both halves. He just has the ability to go get his shot. That’s what we thought when we recruited him. He’s not really just a catch-and-shoot guy. He’s one of those guys who can kind of go get it on his own. We don’t have many of those.”
The Bucs will likely need another big game from Riley when they play at Georgia Tech today at 2 p.m. at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta.
“Georgia Tech’s by far the biggest team we’ve played,” Bartow said. “It’s a tough challenge for us, but we’re looking forward to it.”
The Yellow Jackets come in 6-3 and have won the rebounding battle in each of their games, averaging seven more rebounds a game than their opponents. They beat Illinois, 67-64, in their last outing as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
“They’re very big,” said Bartow, whose team is 4-5. “They don’t have a starter that weighs under 200 points. Not only are they tall, they’re thick. We’ve lost a lot of the rebounding battles to teams that aren’t as strong and powerful as Georgia Tech. Rebounding’s gonna be a huge factor. I’m not saying we’ve got to win it, but we’ve certainly got to hold our own.”
Riley’s big night against Austin Peay came in a game when a lot of things went right for the Bucs, who had lost their first three road games. A.J. Merriweather and Rashawn Rembert each scored 18 points as well, but Riley’s production was the additional ingredient needed to win. He was coming off a three-game stretch in which he scored a combined 15 points.
“It was a confidence boost,” Riley said. “I feel like I was producing for the team. Any time you can get a win, it’s a good thing. But being able to do my part and helping us get the win makes it that much better. I feel like I’m getting back to myself. I need to do that consistently on a regular basis.”
Rembert, ETSU’s leading scorer at 14.1 points a game, says Riley’s emergence will help a team that is spreading the scoring around.
“Jalen can always score,” Rembert said. “He’s instant offense all around. He’s just aggressive with the ball, and that eventually pays off.”
Rembert leads a balanced attack that has six players averaging more than eight points a game. Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard (13.8) and Merriweather (10.7) are also in double figures.
“We can hurt you in so many different ways offensively, and that’s big,” Rembert said. “We just have a lot of weapons.”
Georgia Tech has four players scoring in double figures, led by 6-foot-5 sophomore Marcus Georges-Hunt, who averages 12.4 points a game. Trae Golden, who transferred from Tennessee and received an NCAA waiver to play immediately, averages 12.3.
The Yellow Jackets’ losses have come to Dayton, Ole Miss and St. John’s.
The Bucs, meanwhile, seemingly have righted the ship after an 0-4 start. They’ve won four of their last five games and enter an Atlantic Coast Conference arena with some confidence.
“When you’re winning, it helps,” Bartow said. “We’re playing a little bit better. We still have a long way to go, but we’ve made some progress and we’re winning some games so obviously we’re feeling a little better.”
Today’s game will be the two schools’ first meeting since the NCAA tournament in 1990, a year Georgia Tech made the Final Four. The Yellow Jackets beat ETSU, 99-83, that year.