BLACKSBURG, Va. — East Tennessee State may prove to have one of its better shooting teams of recent vintage, but it didn’t show the first time out.
The Bucs lost to Virginia Tech 64-53 in their season opener Saturday, doomed by 29 percent shooting.
They missed at the rim, they went 2 of 17 from the 3-point arc and 13 of 22 at the foul line. And still they were in position to win at the end, trailing by four with less than two minutes left as the Cassell Coliseum crowd of 7,189 grew restless.
“The fight was great, the competitive spirit was great,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “Defensively we played well enough and we rebounded well enough. Bottom line, we were not very efficient on the offensive end.
“We didn’t make enough shots to win.”
The Bucs did make good use of full-court pressure and an active zone defense to control the action early. They were able to negate the Hokies’ size advantage and keep them away from the basket in building a 21-15 lead after a pair of free throws by Tommy Hubbard with 7:54 left.
Those, however, would be their last points of the half.
The Hokies reeled off a 9-0 run to take a 24-21 lead to the locker room and never trailed again. The Bucs held their own on the boards and committed just three turnovers but were 6 of 30 from the field.
“We had control most of the half,” said senior forward Isiah Brown. “If we’d just made some shots, we could have stretched the lead, but we went cold at the end of the half.
“The second half things sped up and they started to get the ball inside.”
Indeed, the Hokies moved out to a nine-point advantage in the first five minutes and looked like they might run away. Robert Brown knocked down three straight 3-pointers, and four points by Dorian Finney-Smith made it a 51-37 game with 7:44 left.
By then, Isiah Brown was sitting on the ETSU bench. He picked up his fourth and fifth fouls less than a minute apart and was disqualified on a blocking call with 8:25 left.
“I moved my whole body to let them go,” said Brown, who departed with 10 points and six rebounds, “but that’s the challenge you face when you’re on the road against an ACC team.”
The Bucs certainly didn’t want to lose their only real offensive presence in the paint.
“Isiah is a guy who when he gets fouls, they can come in bunches,” said Bartow. “We were down 14 there and it just seemed like we needed him in the game. I rolled the dice and lost.”
Still, the Bucs fought back behind Adam Sollazzo.
Playing on a tender ankle, the senior point guard scored eight straight ETSU points, and Sheldon Cooley followed with a perimeter jumper. Suddenly it was a six-point game with 3:39 to play.
“This team isn’t going to give up,” said Sollazzo, who led the Bucs with 13 points. “We almost brought it all the way back.”
When Lukas Poderis stuck back an offensive rebound, the Hokies’ lead had been trimmed to 55-51 with 1:51 left. But that’s where the rally would die.
The Hokies went to the foul line and made nine of 10 free throws down the stretch to win for the 14th time in the 17-game series.
They prevailed despite shooting 39 percent from the field and outrebounding the Bucs by just three, 42-39. Finney-Smith, the skinny 6-8 freshman from Portsmouth, pulled down 16 boards in his college debut.
ETSU, meanwhile, had 19 offensive rebounds and gave the Hokies all sorts of problems at times.
“That’s a team that presents matchup issues,” said Tech coach Seth Greenberg. “We hung in there and hung in there. We just have so many young guys, new faces.
“This time of year it’s about where we’re going and not where we are.”
The Hokies will get there quicker once point guard Erick Green returns to the lineup. The junior strained an Achilles last week in practice and didn’t play Saturday.
Senior Tyrone Garland stepped into the starting lineup, reportedly playing the point for the first time since high school, and led the Hokies with 13 points. He also had seven of their 15 turnovers.
Brown finished with 13 points and Dorian-Smith added 10.
Cooley chipped in with 10 points for the Bucs, who return home to face Appalachian State on Tuesday night.
“That’s going to hit us quick,” said Bartow. “App State is a lot better than last year when we caught them in Cancun.
“We’ve got a lot of decisions to make here early in the season — how to play, who to play. That’s part of the growing pains.”