FT. MYERS, Fla. — A six-game stretch on the road started with a high for the East Tennessee State basketball team, but it’s in danger of unraveling halfway through.
The Bucs have lost back-to-back games since winning at Charlotte on that last-second 3-pointer by Jarvis Jones. The most recent setback was a 73-65 loss Thursday night at Stetson to open their Atlantic Sun Conference schedule.
The Hatters, coming off a 7-23 season, were picked to finish last in the league.
Today the Bucs (3-3) face another hungry team with a new coaching staff when they visit Florida Gulf Coast (2-5). Tipoff is 5:15 p.m. at Alico Arena, followed by the women’s game at 7:30.
“We certainly need to get at least a split down here,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “They’re all important, but the league games are really important. I would love to have gotten the first one. We just didn’t play well enough to do it.”
Indeed, the Bucs fell behind early in a sloppy first half, then saw the Hatters race away with a half-dozen 3-pointers in the first eight minutes after the break. It was a 22-point game when the Bucs began to claw back with full-court pressure.
The closest they would get, however, was six.
That’s two games in a row now where the Bucs have essentially had to play catch-up the whole way. They never led in a 79-71 loss at Troy on Tuesday night.
“Maybe we’re just making the game too complicated,” said senior forward Isiah Brown, who had a team-high 20 points and five rebounds at Stetson. “We struggled on offense really badly in the beginning tonight. Toward the end, all we did was clear out one side and go to the rim.”
Their defense also forced 23 turnovers. The press has been productive most games, masking poor shooting with some easy baskets.
The Bucs are shooting 44 percent from the field — 27 percent from 3-point range. And they’ve made only 27 threes all season.
At the foul line, they’re shooting 57 percent.
Bartow put free throws at the top of his list of problem areas after the Stetson game but also lamented “four or five issues that are getting us.”
The Bucs will try to right themselves today against a team they’ve lost to only once in seven previous meetings.
The Eagles are under new management — former Florida State assistant Andy Enfield has replaced Dave Balz — and they’ve been competitive despite losing their last four games. All five of their losses have been on the road against respectable programs — TCU (73-72), Southern Methodist (65-64), Miami (60-50), Maryland (73-67) and Loyola (77-74).
They’re shooting a better percentage from the field than their opponents (44 percent to 40), they’re shooting 70 percent at the foul line and they’re outrebounding teams by an average of five per game.
Freshmen guards Bernard Thompson (11.9 ppg.) and Brett Comer (11.1) lead the team in scoring, while junior guard Sherwood Brown averages 10.6 and is the top rebounder (5.9).
There are five true freshmen and a redshirt freshman on the roster at FGC, which was picked eighth in the league’s preseason polls.
The Bucs, picked second, are trying to get their starters to all play well at the same time.
While Brown has been a consistent presence in the paint, shooting 64 percent from the field, the team’s other all-conference player, forward Tommy Hubbard, has managed just six points each of the last two games. And Marcus Dubose, the team’s leading scorer, hasn’t been much of a factor either.
Today’s contest marks a homecoming of sorts for a good chunk of the ETSU roster. Four players — senior Adam Sollazzo, juniors Sheldon Cooley and Lukas Poderis, and freshman Rashawn Rembert — call the Tampa area home, and Brown is from Miami.
“It’s always nice to come down here and play because our family and friends can watch,” said Sollazzo. “But right now, winning a game is all that’s important.”