It’s fitting, perhaps, that East Tennessee State will play one more game of basketball with Lipscomb as it heads out the Atlantic Sun Conference door.
The teams have waged some memorable battles over the last nine years, and tonight’s do-or-die matchup here in the tournament quarterfinals figures to be another high-scoring crowd pleaser. Tipoff is 7 o’clock.
The fifth-seeded Bison finished the regular season on a four-game win streak, and they know how to win in ETSU’s building. They’ve taken two of the last three games in the Dome, including an 82-80 decision on Jan. 9 that showcased their young talent.
Redshirt freshman Josh Williams scored 34 points on 10-of-14 shooting, and J.C. Hampton, a true freshman, sealed the deal with a pull-up jumper with four seconds left.
The Bucs turned around a month later in Nashville and won a 96-88 thriller that featured 15 ties and 27 lead changes, with Jalen Riley pouring in a career-high 30 points. That gave them a 6-5 advantage in the last 11 games of the series; five of those were decided by two points or less.
“We’ve certainly been in a lot of close games with them,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said Monday. “I think Casey (Alexander) has done a whale of job with this team. He’s gotten incredible play from two freshmen that not a lot of people knew about at the first of the year, Williams and Hampton. And you combine that with the Smith brothers (Martin and Malcolm) and some other guys … they’re a really tough matchup.
“It’s a well-coached team coming in here with a lot of momentum.”
Whoever wins tonight will likely be jumping on a charter flight Wednesday morning and heading to Fort Myers for a semifinal date with Florida Gulf Coast, the top seed and defending champion. That’s assuming the Eagles handle Stetson on their home floor tonight.
Meanwhile, Mercer is the 2-seed and will host Jacksonville in a rematch of the regular-season finale last Saturday. The other quarterfinal pits third-seeded USC Upstate at home against North Florida.
Semifinals are set for 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, with the championship game Sunday at 2.
The logistics of potentially having to get his team to Southwest Florida on a tight schedule was far from Bartow’s mind as he prepared Monday. So was the A-Sun’s revamped tournament format, in which higher-seeded teams host throughout.
“It’s different,” said Bartow, “but the thing that’s still the same is that you better win the first game and put 100 percent focus into that. That’s where all my energy is going. Other people are investing time into thinking through the logistical stuff beyond that.
“Assuming we can pull off a victory, by 9:30 or so tomorrow night we’ll start figuring out our next move.”
The Bucs may be without starting point guard Petey McClain tonight. The sophomore says he “heard a pop” in his left ankle in practice Sunday and was wearing street clothes with an orthopedic boot as the team worked out Monday.
McClain was supposed to be re-examined by doctors later in the day.
Lipscomb, with its wealth of perimeter shooters and up-tempo attack, presents a far different challenge than Upstate did at the end of the regular season. The Spartans muscled their way to a 44-12 advantage in the paint and held on for a 79-73 victory in Spartanburg.
That spoiled a career-high 33 points by Rashawn Rembert, who tossed in eight of ETSU’s 13 3-pointers. The junior guard now has 96 during this record-setting season – 15 more than anyone else in the A-Sun – and is shooting a league-best 43.4 percent beyond the arc.
“I could never have imagined that,” said Rembert, whose 16.8 scoring average is just a tenth of a point behind league leader Torrey Craig of Upstate. “It’s a credit to hard work and faith. Me and coach Bartow talk all the time; he tells me to stay confident and stay consistent. It’s been a good year so far.”
It got better later in the day when the all-conference team was released. Rembert was named to the five-man first team.
“You want to get those accolades,” he said, “but we’re focused on the bigger picture. We want to win some more games.”
The Bucs certainly have the offensive firepower to do that. They’re averaging 76.8 points per game, with five players scoring in double figures, and another at 9.2.
Lipscomb counters with an attack that’s netting 75.4 ppg. It has four players averaging at least a dozen, led by Martin Smith at 15.7, and tops the league with 263 3-pointers.
“They’re always a tough team, a little undersized, but they fight,” said Hunter Harris, ETSU’s senior forward. “We know we have to stop those threes if we want to keep on playing.”
Getting defensive stops has been an issue for the Bucs all season. They’re allowing 76 points a game, which ranks eighth in the conference, just ahead of Lipscomb (78.1).comments powered by Disqus