DeLAND, Fla. — This time Stetson made it look relatively easy.
The Hatters blew open a close game early in the second half and held on to defeat East Tennessee State 73-65 in the Atlantic Sun Conference opener for both teams Thursday night.
The loss dropped the Bucs to 3-3 and came two nights after they trailed the whole way in an eight-point loss at Troy. They continue a six-game road swing Saturday at Florida Gulf Coast.
“There are four or five issues that are getting us,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “Number one is missed free throws. Number two is turnovers. Every team we play is hitting double-figure threes against us. Our offensive execution is nowhere near where it needs to be.
“It’s just a lot of things, but it’s early. We’re still a work in progress.”
Stetson (4-3) has a way of knocking the Bucs off track. The Hatters have now won five of the last eight games in the series, most of them of the ugly variety.
This one looked just fine to coach Casey Alexander, the longtime Belmont assistant who replaced Derek Waugh here has and re-energized the program.
“This was a good win for our team,” said Alexander. “Everybody knows that East Tennessee State is going to be up near the top of the standings at the end. I’m sure Murry would say his team wasn’t ready to play tonight; we know we’ll get their best shot next time.”
The Bucs led only twice, the last time at 12-10. From there it was a struggle.
The Hatters led 28-25 at the half and pulled away by outscoring the Bucs 27-9 over the first eight minutes of the second half.
“I thought the first half we defended well enough. They had 28, but offensively we were awful,” said Bartow. “The second half they just came out and blitzed us the first eight minutes.”
With his team trailing by 15, Bartow was compelled to pull his starters off the floor and go with freshmen Ryan Woumn, John Walton and Rashawn Rembert, along with juniors Jarvis Jones and J.C. Ward. Woumn hadn’t played all season, and Walton had played only one minute.
That combination worked hard for six minutes, but the Hatters still built a 20-point lead behind Aaron Graham and Joel Naburgs. Graham finished with 20 points and Naburgs had 15.
Using a familiar Belmont weapon, the Hatters shot 11 of 24 from behind the arc. Naburgs and Graham each had five.
It was quite a departure from the grind-it-out style of Stetson’s recent teams.
“You just have to believe in how you want to play,” said Alexander, a Belmont graduate who coached there with Rick Byrd for the last 16 years. “It’s a difficult style, but my guys have bought into it and I have to give them a lot of credit.”
Alexander still had to watch his team make it interesting at the end.
With the Bucs in an all-out scramble defensively, the Hatters committed a flurry of turnovers down the stretch. The Bucs reeled off 11 straight points to get within nine with 2 1/2 minutes left.
The last gasp came on a 3-pointer by Jones with 17 seconds left that made it a six-point game.
“We’ve gotta figure out what we’re doing in the last eight minutes of these games, when we’re fighting back, and try to do it earlier,” said ETSU point guard Adam Sollazzo, who scored 10 of his 13 points down the stretch. “Earlier, the shots weren’t falling, the free throws weren’t falling. It was bad passes and bad play.”
Isiah Brown led the Bucs with 20 points and five rebounds. Marcus Dubose scored 11.
The team’s shooting woes at the foul line and 3-point arc continued. The Bucs made 13 of 24 free throws and 2 of 12 3-pointers.
The Hatters got 14 points from Chris Perez and 12 from Adam Pegg, their leading scorer on the season. Pegg and Naburgs each had nine rebounds as Stetson dominated the glass 45-28.
Graham and Naburgs also spread the wealth, handing out 12 assists between them. The Hatters had 20 assists on their 25 field goals but also finished with 23 turnovers.