(Photos by Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
Jalen Riley was the smallest guy on the court when the game began. By the time a wild night had come to an end, nobody was bigger.
Riley willed East Tennessee State back from a huge second-half deficit Tuesday night in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament quarterfinals, and when an 89-88 double-overtime victory against Lipscomb was complete, the 6-foot, 150-pound junior limped off the court battered and bruised.
But Riley and his teammates were smiling like winners, thanks largely to his 28 points and 10 rebounds. Along the way, he went 16 of 21 from the free throw line.
All this came a day after he was selected as the A-Sun's newcomer of the year.
"Jalen is one of those guys ... he's very gutsy. I think he was very deserving of being newcomer of the year," ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. "I probably haven't played him as many minutes as I should.
"He's got a heart that's real big and he's fearless. He goes in there and he's got a knack of getting fouled, and he's a great free shooter."
Riley was in the starting lineup for just the second time this season thanks to Petey McClain's ankle injury.
"I just tried to do my best and step in and make sure we didn't miss a beat," Riley said. "One man goes down, another man has to step up."
McClain doesn't do anything spectacular, but he is a calming influence on the court and he gets the ball in the right places. He's the kind of guy who isn't really noticed until he's not there and things are going awry.
That's what was happening to the Bucs, whose offense appeared rudderless in the early going.
Riley got off to a miserable start, missing 9 of his first 10 shots. It sure didn't look like it was going to be his night.
"You just keep fighting," said Riley, who finished 5 for 17 from the field. "You can't hang your head too long. If you hang your head on missed shots, it's gonna take you out of your game."
The Bucs appeared out of the game in the second half. They were behind 54-38 with 11:06 left.
But, after all, this was ETSU-Lipscomb, a series in which close calls and wild endings have dominated.
As the Bucs began to come back, Riley was in the middle of things. Every time ETSU needed a score, he put his head down and drove into the lane. Sometimes he made the shot, most others he was fouled.
Riley, who came into the game second in the league in free throw shooting at 86.2 percent, stepped to the line with 8.6 seconds left in regulation and Lipscomb up 69-68. He missed the first, and when the second one swished, the stage was set for overtime.
"I'm mad at him for missing five," Bartow said, unable to keep a straight face.
Riley got his last point on a free throw with 2:55 left in the second overtime. That foul left him sprawled on the court, and he stayed down for a minute or so. Even after the game, he was limping, a victim of cramps cause by his 40-plus minutes of hard action.
Riley had scored his career high of 30 points in ETSU's win at Lipscomb during the regular season.
"We just had no answer," Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander said. "He had his career high against us at our place. We held him in check for a long time, but he did the majority of that work in the last eight minutes and the overtime periods. We just couldn't keep him in front."
Riley wasn't the lone hero.
The stats didn't look particularly good, but enough Bucs made just enough big plays to get it done.
Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard's steal and two free throws with 46 seconds left proved to be a big factor.
Lester Wilson made a 3-pointer and two free throws in the final 2:25.
A.J. Merriweather's free throw with less than two seconds left provided the winning margin.
Rashawn Rembert had 16 points a day after being named first-team All A-Sun. He didn't shoot it well -- 5 for 13 -- but had four assists.
Freshman Devin Harris played 10 minutes at the point after not seeing any action in the last 11 games and looked solid with the ball in addition to getting couple of baskets.
"Our guys just stepped up and made huge plays," Bartow said.
The Bucs are on their way to a semifinal game at defending A-Sun champion Florida Gulf Coast, a team that made the Sweet 16 last year.
"The tournament starts with eight and now it's down to four," Bartow said. "Hopefully we can play a great game Thursday night.
"A lot of times in a tournament you have to win a tough one to advance which we were able to do."
Joe Avento is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at email@example.com.