If ever Murry Bartow needed an easy one, this was the time.
A day after the East Tennessee State basketball coach’s father died, the Bucs earned their first Atlantic Sun Conference victory of the season, rolling past USC-Upstate 88-73 Wednesday night at the Minidome.
“It was obvious we needed this win,” Bartow said. “Once you get into the game, you’re into the game. To be quite honest it’s like any other game. The shootaround was difficult and the pregame meal was difficult. But our guys played their hearts out and I’m proud of them.”
Gene Bartow, a legendary coach who won 647 games and succeeded John Wooden at UCLA, died on Tuesday after a battle with cancer. His son decided to stay with the ETSU team for Wednesday night’s game. Murry Bartow is expected to coach Saturday’s home game against Mercer but will likely miss Monday’s home game against Kennesaw State.
“Today was difficult,” Bartow said. “The last 24 hours have been very difficult. I’m proud of my guys. I really felt we had so much riding on this game and then when my dad passed away last night, now you’ve got more motivational factors at play. Good players in a motivational situation like that … I would have been shocked if we had lost.”
After the crowd of 2,768 offered moment of silence for Gene Bartow, the Bucs went to work, assuming the lead in the first minute and never relinquishing it.
Bartow had been looking for more balanced production from what had recently become a two-man team, and the Bucs (6-7 overall, 1-2 A-Sun) responded with six players in double figures.
Junior guard Sheldon Cooley stepped up and answered the call, equaling his season high with 20 points, including 15 in the decisive first half. He made 8 of 13 from the field.
“Coach gave us that speech about a couple guys not producing the last couple of games and I figured it was an important conference game and I decided to step it up a notch today,” Cooley said.
Adam Sollazzo and Tommy Hubbard were the only two ETSU players to score in double figures in the last two games, and they did it again – Sollazzo had 18 points and Hubbard had 10 before fouling out. This time they got plenty of help.
Lukas Poderis tied his career high with 14 points that included three strong dunks. Jarvis Jones added 11 and Marcus Dubose had 10.
“The Tampa threesome (Cooley, Sollazzo and Poderis) were our leading scorers tonight,” Bartow said.
Poderis seemed to enjoy his productive night, which tied his career high also established against Upstate.
“When I came here I was a finesse player,” he said. “Now if I get the chance, I’m gonna dunk everything.”
The Bucs began to pull away midway through the first half by sandwiching runs of 6-0 and 11-0 around a pair of dunks from Upstate’s Babatund Olumuyiwa. That left ETSU up 29-11.
ETSU stretched its lead to 34-15 on back-to-back baskets by Cooley and was ahead 39-21 at halftime. The lead remained in double digits the rest of the way.
Upstate (8-7, 2-1) was led by Torrey Craig’s career-high 29 points. Craig missed five of his first six 3-point shots, but heated up to score 25 in the second half. Mario Blessing and Jodd Maxey each added 11 and Ty Greene had 10.
“I would congratulate East Tennessee for playing a real good basketball game,” Upstate coach Eddie Payne said. “They thoroughly whipped us. Right from the beginning we looked like we weren’t prepared.”
ETSU forced 24 turnovers, including 16 in the first half.
“We just felt like in this one game, we wanted to press more,” Bartow said. “We just didn’t feel like we weren’t scoring enough points.
“I’m really proud of our team, really proud of the effort.”