By Trey Williams
Press Sports Writer
East Tennessee State guard Jalen Riley found another gear in the clutch.
Riley scored six of his 16 points in the final 2:12 and assisted a Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard three-point play that gave ETSU an 80-77 lead with 91 seconds remaining, and the Buccaneers held on for an 84-79 win against Austin Peay on Saturday in the MSHA Athletic Center.
The Buccaneers (6-6) completed a home-and-home sweep of the Governors (5-8) and head home for Christmas having won six of their last eight.
Junior 6-foot-3 wing Rashawn Rembert led ETSU with 21 points and made 4 of 9 shots from 3-point range. He converted a three-point play after banking in a short transition shot to get the Bucs within 77-75 with 2:49 to go, and Riley grabbed the wheel from there.
A 6-foot, 150-pound junior-college transfer, Riley drove the lane to get to the foul line for two free throws which tied the score at 77. After setting up Gadsden-Gilliard, Riley delivered what proved to be the dagger – a 16-footer off the dribble that put ETSU ahead 82-77 with 34 seconds left.
“At the end of the game like that you’ve gotta make plays, and coach had the ball in my hands,” Riley said. “He (the defender) sagged off a little bit and I pulled up for the mid-range jumper and it went for me.”
Riley sealed it with a pair of free throws with 13.9 seconds left after Austin Peay shooting guard Cory Arentsen, who’d made his first six 3-pointers in the first half and was looking for his eighth at the end, forced a contested, off-balance airball from the left corner with 18 seconds left.
“He (Riley) is a little guy with a huge heart,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said, “and he’s got a great swagger about him and a great belief in his ability to score. ... He just goes and gets you baskets. … He’s also one of those guys that doesn’t mind having the ball in his hands late in a game. Some guys don’t want to take those shots.”
ETSU was comfortable with Arentsen’s first couple of 3-point attempts in the first half, seeing as how he entered the game 7-for-23 on the season.
“He’s a guy that, honestly, hadn’t been playing much for them,” Bartow said, “and then all of the sudden tonight he made his first one, made his second one and then I’m sure the rim looked really, really big to him from then on out.”
ETSU won 80-74 at Austin Peay on Dec. 4, and opened the rematch with a 12-0 run. But Arentsen (21 points on 7-of-10 3-point shooting) made those six straight treys in the final 7:42 of the half to help the Governors roar to a 50-37 halftime lead.
Austin Peay still led 77-70 before ETSU’s A.J. Merriweather’s hustling transition stick-back got the Bucs within five points with 3:21 remaining.
Merriweather, a 6-foot-2 freshman guard, finished with 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting, including 2 of 3 behind the arc. He also had four steals, four rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot.
“A.J.’s just a relentless, relentless competitor,” Bartow said. “And first half he was not very good; second half he was phenomenal.”
Gadsden-Gilliard had 14 points and seven rebounds. He was 5 of 8 from the field and made four of five foul shots.
ETSU was 17 of 20 at the foul line. Riley was 6-for-6 and Rembert 5-for-5.
Petey McClain had five steals. Lukas Poderis, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound fifth-year senior, blocked a couple of shots while providing invaluable interior defense and rebounding down the stretch. Hunter Harris fouled out with 10 minutes left. Bartow said Poderis was “very pivotal defensively” the final five-plus minutes. Indeed, all ETSU defenders seemed especially active during that span.
A flurry of late turnovers and difficult shots marred an offensive performance by Austin Peay that had often been easy on the eye.
“That was a very important last five minutes,” Bartow said. “I don’t want to overstate it, but … down seven with five to play, that was a very important last five minutes for us to play as well as we did. We were able to pressure them.”
The Governors finished with 20 turnovers, not that veteran coach Dave Loos was surprised.
“We turn the ball over too much,” Loos said. “That’s it in a nutshell. We just turn the ball over too much. You can’t win that way. Twenty or 22 turnovers, unfortunately, is not an unusual thing for us.
“We just got in a big hurry and tried to force it in there and it didn’t work out.”
It was the second game in 10 days for ETSU, whose only opponent in that stretch was Division II Tusculum. The Govs were playing their third game in five days after losing by single digits to Lipscomb and Vanderbilt.
Austin Peay’s Chris Horton, a 6-foot-8, 195-pound forward, had game highs in points (23) and rebounds (nine). He made 10 of 14 field goal attempts. Arentsen finished with 21 points and forward Serigne Mboup had 10 points and six rebounds.
ETSU’s off until Sunday, Dec. 29 when it hosts Valparaiso. Bartow’s father, Gene, coached there six seasons (1964-70). ETSU will visit Valparaiso next season.
“They’re gonna honor my dad and do something before that game,” Bartow said. “I think it’s a really good series for us. They’re a nice team and probably the biggest team we’ve played with the exception of Georgia Tech.”
But ETSU can enjoy Christmas before the big task.
“It’s gonna be a good Christmas,” Riley said.
Bartow’s body language echoed that sentiment.
“I wish we were better than 6-6, but we’ve won six of our last eight,” Bartow said. “And we’re getting better.”