The East Tennessee State basketball team will head into 2014 with a winning record.
The Bucs won their third game in a row on Sunday, jumping out to a big lead thanks to their best half of basketball in a while and holding on to beat Valparaiso, 73-62, in a non-conference game at the Minidome.
The result left ETSU 7-6, its first winning record since the end of the 2011-12 season.
“This is my first time being over .500 since I got to ETSU,” Bucs forward Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard said. “We were never over .500 last year. That’s big, too, after we started 0-4. We kept working and put it all together and we’re continuing to get better.”
Jalen Riley led ETSU with 19 points, 15 of which came in the decisive first half when the Bucs used an early 11-0 run to grab a lead they never relinquished. They were up 42-21 at halftime thanks, in part to a swarming zone defense that forced 18 first-half turnovers.
“To be up 21 at half, you’re thrilled,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “But when you’re up 21 at half against a really good team, it’s very scary because you know they’re gonna make a run at you.”
The Crusaders (8-7) did, indeed, make a run. Spurred by 14 consecutive points, they whittled at the Bucs’ lead, cutting it to 60-53 with 5:14 left.
But Gadsden-Gilliard connected from 3-point range, and Rashawn Rembert drained another bomb, and the margin was comfortable again.
“They made a push in the second half,” Riley said. “We got a little complacent, but we kind of shook the cobwebs off and stopped living on the first half.”
The Bucs won despite being out-rebounded 45-28. They made 10 of 21 shots from 3-point range and turned the ball over only nine times. Valparaiso was 4 of 19 on 3-pointers and finished with 24 turnovers.
Along the way, ETSU had plenty of notable individual performances.
Rembert scored 16 points, while Gadsden-Gilliard had 13 and Lester Wilson added 10. Hunter Harris finished with five blocked shots against a much taller front line that started 7-foot, 270-pound Moussa Gueye. Petey McClain had five assists. A.J. Merriweather had five of ETSU’s 14 steals.
“The steals were big tonight,” Bartow said.
Gadsden-Gilliard, the 6-foot-5 bruiser who spent some time running the point, punctuated his night in the final minute when he drove the lane and scored on a scoop-hook shot that he launched high in the air. Seconds later, he fouled out.
LaVonte Dority led Valparaiso with 14 points, while Alec Peters had 13 and Vashil Fernandez added 10 points and 14 rebounds.
“I thought East Tennessee did a great job in the first half,” Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew said. “They shot the ball really well and were very active in their zone. We were very sloppy in our passing. The 18 first-half turnovers was pretty much the key to the game.”
ETSU begins the Atlantic Sun Conference schedule Saturday at Kennesaw State, and if the latest victory gave the Bucs a glimpse of their future, Bartow might be a very happy man in the coming months.
“We kind of see where we can go,” Bartow said. “We’re still tweaking some things. We’re still a work in progress, but we’re obviously better today than we were a month ago.
“We try not to focus too much on records, but it is nice to be over .500. We’re not giddy about being 7-6, but from 0-4 to 7-6, we’ve made a lot of strides.”