The East Tennessee State basketball team arrived in southwest Florida early Wednesday, a bit spent after an emotionally draining, double-overtime victory on their home court barely 12 hours earlier.
Coach Murry Bartow hoped his troops would be able to recharge quickly and challenge top-seeded Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun Conference semifinals tonight. For better or worse, there was still a touch of euphoria in the air from the 89-88 thriller with Lipscomb.
“In a tournament, you try to ride the wave, ride the momentum,” said Bartow. “The rush of the last 18 minutes or so of the game last night, going from 16 down to being very fortunate to win, we just hope we still have some of that left.”
The Bucs took a charter flight to Fort Myers, settled into their hotel and planned to practice in Alico Arena for about an hour early Wednesday evening. They’ll tip off with the defending A-Sun champs tonight at 6:30 p.m.; CSS will televise.
Mercer hosts USC Upstate in the other semifinal, at 8:30.
The Bucs (18-14) and Eagles (21-11) split during the regular season, with each winning impressively on their home floor. The fourth-seeded Bucs will need to be a whole different team tonight than they were in a 90-62 rout in Fort Myers on Jan 18.
They managed just 22 points in the first half of that contest and trailed by 20.
Things didn’t get any better from there, and the action turned into a playground dunkfest in front of a packed crowd of over 4,600 that will surely be back in full throat. The Eagles are 14-1 at home this season, losing only to Iona more than three months ago.
“They’re really good in this building,” said Bartow. “It’s a great home-court advantage with their crowd, and we can’t let (Brett) Comer get his juices flowing. We had really bad offense the last time here and they ended up running and ripping and lobbing and dunking. We just can’t let that happen again.”
Comer, the flashy point guard, had no juice in the rematch, managing just six points and four assists in an 89-81 loss in Johnson City. He apparently hasn’t forgotten that experience.
“I feel like we owe them one for the one on the road,” he told the Fort Myers News-Press after the Eagles’ 77-55 rout of Stetson in the quarterfinals. “We didn’t play particularly well. They came out and kind of kicked us in the mouth right away. But here we got into them and did the same to them. I think it’ll be a good game.”
Tonight’s matchup features three of the five all-conference first-teamers in Comer and Bernard Thompson of Gulf Coast, and Rashawn Rembert of ETSU. All three are junior guards.
Rembert now leads the A-Sun in scoring, at 16.8 points per game. He’s also tops in 3-pointers — just one shy of 100 — and had six in a 31-point performance against FGCU the last time they met.
The Bucs have some health concerns in the backcourt. Starting point guard Petey McClain is likely finished for the season with an ankle injury, and Jalen Riley tweaked his ankle late in the Lipscomb game. He’s still expected to be in the starting lineup tonight.
McClain, who rarely looks to score, may be the unsung hero on a team with five double-digit scorers. He heard a pop in his left ankle during practice last weekend and was wearing an orthopedic boot on the bench Thursday night.
The Bucs didn’t get much of anything done offensively without him until late in the contest.
“It didn’t hit me quite as much during the game,” said Bartow, “but watching tape, the way we played the first 30 minutes we really missed Petey. He’s a stabilizer who moves the ball, and he and Rashawn work well together. A lot of Rashawn’s threes come out of Petey’s hands.”
Riley, making only his second start of the season, picked up most of McClain’s minutes, and the Bucs needed everything he had to get through to the semifinals.
The A-Sun newcomer of the year finished with 28 points and 10 rebounds, taking over after his team fell behind 58-42 with just eight minutes left in regulation. Eighteen of his points came from there on.
Riley showed his streakiness as a shooter — he started 1 of 10 from the field — and also his toughness at 6-feet and 150 pounds. Driving to the basket time and again, he earned 21 free throws and made 16.
Riley is an 85 percent foul shooter and leads the league in attempts (180) by a wide margin.
“Jalen is one of those guys who’s very gutsy,” said Bartow. “He’s got a heart that’s really big and he’s fearless. He has a way of getting fouled, and he’s a great free throw shooter.”
The game was ETSU’s first double-overtime affair since beating Lipscomb three years ago, and it ended on a bizarre note.
Lipscomb had a shot to win in the closing seconds of double overtime, but Martin Smith’s jumper was off the mark and A.J. Merriweather grabbed the rebound for the Bucs. The score was tied at 88.
Thinking the Bison were trailing, however, Josh Williams stepped in and fouled Merriweather as he looked for an outlet with 1.6 seconds left. Admittedly shocked, the freshman went to the other end and made the second of two free throws for the game winner.
“I’ve seen it happen before, but I’m not sure it was in a game I was a part of,” said Bartow. “I’m certainly glad we won, but I honestly felt sorry for the kid. He’s a very, very good player. Just in that instant, he made a tough mistake. We’ve all been there one way or another.”
A large crowd was on its feet and fully engaged for the last five minutes of regulation and both overtimes, and many students spilled onto the court to celebrate at the end. With ETSU planning a move to Freedom Hall next season, it may be the last celebration in the Dome for awhile.
Notes: Riley was one of three Bucs who saw at least 40 minutes of playing time Thursday night.
Rembert went for 49, taking just one minute off, in a 16-point performance. Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard turned in a 12-point, 10-rebound, four-assist, four-steal performance in 48 minutes. …
Five players scored in double figures against the Eagles last time, led by Rembert’s 31, which was a career high at the time. Lester Wilson followed with 18 after also tossing in a half-dozen 3-pointers. ...
Senior forward Chase Fieler led the Eagles’ wire-to-wire victory over Stetson with 17 points. A sellout crowd of 4,673 was on hand to watch. ...
Thompson has led Florida Gulf Coast in both games against ETSU, scoring 21 and 23 points, and averages 15.1 for the season. Comer (14.0) and Fieler (13.9) are also in double figures.comments powered by Disqus