Being home for the holidays has been good so far for the East Tennessee State basketball team, on the court and off.
A rousing come-from-behind victory over Austin Peay gave the Bucs a merry Christmas, one they enjoyed with their families with some well deserved time off. Now they’re hoping to continue that momentum when Valparaiso comes to town today for a 4 p.m. tipoff at the Minidome.
“The two years I’ve been here, I’ve never gone home for Christmas with a win, and on top of that, we never went home .500,” ETSU forward Lester Wilson said. “So you can go home and think about other things, have fun and make sure you enjoy things. That was a big difference, to enjoy being home and not worry about our record.”
The 84-79 victory over Austin Peay, spurred by a 14-0 run in the closing minutes, allowed ETSU to get back to .500 for the first time this season.
“It was a good win,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “It was a big win. Not that we’re sitting here satisfied being 6-6, but the fact that we’ve won six of our last eight and have come back from where we started, that was an important game for us.”
Today’s game is a big one as well for the Bucs, who can enter the Atlantic Sun Conference schedule with a winning record should they knock off the Crusaders of the Horizon League. ETSU enters its final non-conference game of the season on a two-game winning streak.
“We thought these three games, all at home, were gonna be very important after the Georgia Tech game,” Bartow said. “We got the first two and now we have Valpo rolling in for us. If we can pull it off, it would be a great win and good way to finish off the non-conference slate.”
Valparaiso is coming off a 90-62 loss at Central Florida, a team it beat by 15 points at home earlier in the season. The Crusaders (8-6) have already played one A-Sun team, having lost 117-108 in triple overtime to Mercer.
“We know this Valpo team is good,” ETSU guard Rashawn Rembert said. “We know that Mercer beat them, but they’ve beaten some tough teams. Hopefully we can pull out a win and keep the momentum going.”
LaVonte Dority, a 6-foot-1 senior, leads Valparaiso, averaging 15.6 points a game. Alec Peters, a 6-foot-8 freshman who had a 30-point effort in a win over Loyola Marymount, averages 14.4 and is shooting 47 percent from 3-point range.
“They’ve got a lot of size,” Bartow said. “When you look at their numbers, they remind me a little bit of Georgia Tech. Their offensive and defensive numbers remind me of Tech. They are big and they have a number of guys who can shoot it. So when we’re playing zone, which we’ve been playing a lot of, it’s not like you can focus on just a couple guys. With Valpo, they’ve got five guys who have made at least 10 threes.”
Valparaiso is led by third-year coach Bryce Drew, who recently signed a 10-year contract extension. Drew led the Crusaders to the Sweet 16 as a player in 1998 when they beat Ole Miss and Florida State.
Rembert continues to lead a balanced ETSU scoring attack at 14.7 points a game. Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard is next at 11.9, followed by Jalen Riley at 11.7 and A.J. Merriweather at 11.1.
After today’s game, the Bucs open A-Sun play Saturday at Kennesaw State.