HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — East Tennessee State has been winning basketball games lately by piling up the points.
It took some stout defense to get the job done Thursday night.
The Bucs limited Northern Kentucky to just 17 points in the second half on their way to a 64-50 Atlantic Sun Conference victory. It was the fewest points scored against them this season as they won for the fourth time in five games.
“It was a great stretch to end it,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “We started pressing them, and they didn’t like that. The press not only hurt them, but it limited their ability in the half-court.”
Rashawn Rembert scored 20 points, with six 3-pointers, to lead the Bucs (13-11, 6-5), and Jalen Riley added 16. A.J. Merriweather just missed his fourth double-double of the season, with nine points and 11 rebounds.
Merriweather missed a free throw in the final minute, which stood as ETSU’s only miss of the night. The A-Sun’s leading foul shooting team was 14 of 15.
Facing a nine-point deficit early in the second half, the Bucs went to full-court pressure and changed the tempo of the game. The Norse had trouble advancing the ball, and when they did, they struggled to get into any kind of half-court offense.
Rembert had bookend 3-pointers in a 12-0 run, the last one giving the Bucs a 43-40 lead with 8:36 left. The Norse tied the game moments later, but the Bucs raced away with a 19-7 burst to the finish.
Northern Kentucky (8-16, 4-8) shot 27 percent from the field in the second half while being outscored 40-17. The loss was its fourth in a row and seventh in eight games.
Jalen Billups led the Norse with 12 points and 12 rebounds, but he managed just two baskets a minute apart in the second half. Dean Danos added 10 points. The team’s leading scorer, Jordan Jackson, was held without a field goal and scored just five points — about a third his season average.
The Norse were without two starters, sophomore guards Tyler White and Todd Johnson, who sat out with injuries. They have accounted for about 19 points and five assists a game this season.
The lack of ballhandlers showed when the Bucs made their run in the second half.
“In their defense, when your starting point guard is out, and another key guard is out, it’s going to make the press even more tough to handle,” said Bartow. “And we were not just getting steals but also shortening the shot clock.”
The Bucs were also missing two players. Senior forward Lukas Poderis was suspended for a game after being ejected for his role in a skirmish with Kennesaw State’s Andrew Osemhen last Sunday. Freshman guard Devin Harris was home in Florida to be with family after the death of his grandmother.
The game was an offensive struggle from the outset, with the teams combining to go 2 of 17 from the field.
The Bucs finally got untracked long enough to build an eight-point lead, only to watch it disappear. They trailed 33-24 at halftime after going the last 8:04 without a point. The Norse ended the half on a 15-point run.
It was frustrating enough for Bartow to insert walk-on guard Todd Halvorsen and reserve forward Ron Giplaye, who hadn’t gotten off the bench in the last 12 games.
“It was pretty lethargic in the first half, two teams playing zone,” said Bartow. “We go in down nine and decided to stir things up, create some momentum, create some pressure.”
With their third road win of the season in hand, the Bucs now head on to Nashville for a Saturday night matchup with Lipscomb. The Bison beat them 82-80 in Johnson City a month ago.
“Things are so much better when you win the first game on a two-game run like this,” said Bartow. “I won’t say we’d be happy with a split, but we got the first one.”