Brett Comer drives to the hoop. (Amanda Inscore/Fort Myers News-Press)
The East Tennessee State basketball team did about everything needed do to pull the upset Thursday night at Florida Gulf Coast.
It just couldn’t make a shot at the end.
The Bucs managed just two free throws in the last 3 minutes and were overtaken by the top-seeded Eagles 69-64 in the Atlantic Sun Conference semifinals.
Florida Gulf Coast (22-11), the defending champ, moves on to face Mercer for the championship Sunday in Fort Myers, Fla. The Bears beat USC Upstate, 78-75, in double overtime in Thursday night’s late semifinal.
Meanwhile, the Bucs (18-15) headed home with a lot of what-ifs to ponder. Their offense had faltered at the worst possible time, with 23 percent shooting in the second half.
“When I looked at tape of Florida Gulf Coast before the game, the one thing I knew we would do was score,” said coach Murry Bartow. “That’s the one thing we didn’t do. We took some bad shots but also got some really clean ones. We just didn’t make them.”
The Bucs shot 33 percent for the game and also had a relatively poor night at the foul line. The league’s best free-throw shooting team was 16 of 24, and it couldn’t afford eight misses in an airtight game.
Neither team led by more than three in the last 13 minutes.
Rashawn Rembert led the Bucs with 18 points, including four 3-pointers that left him with 103 for the season. The junior guard came into the game as the A-Sun’s leading scorer, with a 16.8 average.
Jalen Riley added 13 points, but the 85 percent foul shooter missed four free throws. The Bucs got an expected lift from freshman Devin Harris, who scored 10 points while helping fill the void left by the injury to starting point guard Petey McClain.
Harris had just 29 points in 15 games previously.
The Eagles surely wouldn’t have survived without a big game from Chase Fieler. The senior forward finished with 22 points and a career-high 15 rebounds.
Bernard Thompson scored 14 points for the Eagles, while Jones collected 10 points and 10 rebounds. Gulf Coast outscored ETSU 32-15 in the paint and held a 46-39 rebounding edge.
The Bucs led 62-61 after a pair of Rembert free throws at the 3:37 mark, but the Eagles answered with a seven-point spurt for the 10th lead change of the night. And they would hold it.
The big shot down the stretch was a 3-pointer by Jamail Jones, a 27 percent shooter from the arc, with 1:10 left that put the Eagles up by five. Jalen Riley then hit two free throws for the Bucs to make it 67-64, and they had a chance to tie on a runout seconds later when Rembert pulled up for a 3-pointer.
His shot from the top of the key was long off the back of the rim, however, and Jones rebounded the miss. He went to the line twice in the last 21 seconds and made one free throw each time for the final margin.
The Bucs had a final chance to make it a one-possession game, but A.J. Merriweather missed a uncontested shot at the rim with 10 seconds left.
“There’s a fine line between winning and losing … we saw that Tuesday night at home,” said Bartow, referring to the double-overtime victory over Lipscomb in the quarterfinals. “Tonight was another tight game and Florida Gulf Coast made a few more plays down the stretch. It was a great effort by our guys; we got blown out here two months ago.”
The game was the last in the A-Sun for the Bucs, who move on to the Southern Conference next season. They may or may not be finished for the season, since one of the lesser postseason tournaments could come calling.
“That’s a two-man decision, with Dr. Sander talking to Dr. Noland,” said Bartow, referring to ETSU’s athletic director and president. “We’ve had preliminary talks with the CBI and CIT, and I know they would love for us to host games, but there are financial commitments. Hopefully we can play a little bit more.”
The Bucs ran down the checklist of how to put the brakes on Florida Gulf Coast, which was 14-1 at home.
They didn’t let the Eagles get the early momentum and whip up the crowd. They stifled point guard Brett Comer, the proverbial “head of the snake.” They kept the Eagles from getting into Dunk City mode or making threes.
None of those things were accomplished two months ago in a 90-62 blowout.
On this night, Comer, the all-conference point guard, managed just 11 points and four assists, looking a lot like he did in an 89-81 loss at ETSU last month. The Eagles went 4 of 23 from 3-point range and had just one dunk.
“We’ve struggled defensively all year,” said Bartow, “and we were really good defensively tonight. We just couldn’t make baskets.”
The Bucs still battled the Eagles toe to toe most of the way in front of another sellout crowd of more than 4,700. They led by six on a couple of occasions early before the Eagles put together a nine-point run to lead 34-33 at the half.
Fieler had 14 points and 12 rebounds in the half.
Gulf Coast stretched its advantage to six, but ETSU battled back to take a 49-46 lead with 11 minutes left. Neither team led by more than that until the final minute.
Two of ETSU’s seniors fouled out down the stretch. Hunter Harris was gone at the seven-minute mark, and Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard followed three minutes later.
Harris finished with four points and one rebounds, while KGG had nine and four, respectively, in what may be their final game.comments powered by Disqus