This one was for Coach.
With head coach Murry Bartow coaching his final game before heading out of town to attend his father’s funeral, a determined East Tennessee State men’s basketball team scored a 76-61 victory over Mercer on Saturday at the Mini-Dome.
Senior guard Adam Sollazzo, who finished with game-highs of 23 points and six assists, said after hearing news that legendary coach Gene Bartow had died of cancer, the team was determined to send off their own head coach with back-to-back wins over USC-Upstate and Mercer.
“We’re a family in here,” Sollazzo said. “We lost someone in our family, and that’s always very sad. We had a team meeting and talked about bearing down and getting these wins, and just doing it for Coach. It feels special to do that for him.”
The latest victories improved the Bucs to 7-7 overall and 2-2 in the Atlantic Sun. Mercer, which came into the contest with five wins in its last six contests, fell to 11-7 overall and 3-2 in the league.
Bartow talked about how much the players have meant to him this week with their actions both on and off the court.
“They’ve been great,” Bartow said. “As a coach, they’ve been very supportive in a very difficult time for me. You just want them to give great effort and great energy. The greatest thing they’ve done is give me two great first-halves in a row where I could sit back and relax a little bit.”
The Bucs took care of that early, jumping out to a 24-10 lead over the game’s first 10 minutes. The offense didn’t slow up as ETSU hit 64.3 percent from the field in the first half and rolled out to a 49-30 halftime lead.
ETSU followed up those efforts with lock-down defense, limiting the Bears to 10 points through the first 131â„2 minutes of the second half.
Junior guard Marcus Dubose, who scored 17 points in the first half and ended with 21 overall, said the key statistics were on defense. That’s where the Bucs had 15 steals, including five by Tommy Hubbard, and forced 21 turnovers overall.
“Defense wins games,” Dubose said. “Coach really stresses that, so we played really hard tonight to get the win.”
With the motivation of playing hard for their coach and paying tribute to his father, who won 647 games as a college coach and became a frequent visitor to ETSU games in his later years, the Bucs showed an aggressive streak throughout the contest.
It resulted in an advantage of 36-18 points scored in the paint, more points off turnovers and a 16-0 advantage in fast-break points.
One of the strong efforts came from senior post Isiah Brown, who battled his way inside to collect 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting.
Mercer was led by Justin Cecil, who drained five 3-point shots, for most of his 17-point total. Shaquille Harris added 12 points and 6-foot-10 center Daniel Coursey ended with 11.
However, they weren’t able to match the intensity of ETSU or the hot hands of Dubose and Sollazzo, who combined to hit 13 of 13 from the free-throw line.
It paid off with a win for a determined group and a coach grateful for their efforts as players and people.
“We’ve got good guys,” Bartow said. “We just introduced them to our new (university) president and that’s the first thing I said to him, the players we’ve got are really good guys. They mean a lot to me and I appreciate their effort.”
With Bartow scheduled to be in Alabama on Monday, assistant coach Scott Wagers will be calling the shots when the Bucs host Kennesaw State. Game time is set for 6 p.m.