Scott Wagers led the East Tennessee State basketball team to victory Monday night, but he was in no mood to celebrate.
Wagers filled in while ETSU head coach Murry Bartow attended his father’s funeral, and the Bucs came from behind for a 73-69 Atlantic Sun Conference victory over Kennesaw State at the Minidome.
“I’m glad we got the win, but it was not fun,” said Wagers, a longtime ETSU assistant. “It was a tough game. The atmosphere before the game was a little odd. The guys were kind of down. We were all thinking of Coach and his father.”
Hall-of-Fame college basketball coach Gene Bartow, who died last week, was buried Monday in Birmingham, Ala.
It was the Bucs’ third win in a row and improved their record to 8-7 overall, 3-2 in the A-Sun. Kennesaw State fell to 3-13, 0-6.
Adam Sollazzo scored 20 points to lead a balanced ETSU attack. Tommy Hubbard added 15 points and 11 rebounds, while Jarvis Jones had 13 points. Sheldon Cooley and Isiah Brown each had 10.
The Bucs overcame an 11-point second-half deficit by using their full-court press to change the pace of the game.
Early in the second half, ETSU scored seven points in a row without Kennesaw State even getting the ball past the midcourt stripe. It started with a Lukas Poderis tip-in. Hubbard then made a steal and fed Cooley for a basket. Sollazzo stole the inbounds pass and passed it to Jones, who buried a 3-point shot. The entire series took 26 seconds, and it turned the tide.
“It’s pretty much fun if you know how to stay in control with it,” Jones said of the frenetic few moments. “You don’t want to get too crazy. You have to take good shots.”
The Owls had led 38-27 before the wild half-minute. It got ETSU within four.
The Bucs then put the game away with a 12-0 run comprised of scoring from Jones (seven) and Sollazzo (five). That left them up 63-54, their biggest lead of the night, with 1:58 left. ETSU made 12 of its last 14 free throws.
“We love it, especially being at home,” Sollazzo said. “Our crowd did a great job. Just hearing them scream ...”
Sollazzo did a little screaming himself. During the decisive 12-0 stretch, he drove the lane and was fouled as he put up a shot. When it rolled in, he let out a roar that allowed the folks along press row to see his blue mouthguard.
“I was pumped up,” he said. “I wanted that one so bad. I told Coach before he left we’d get this one for him.”
Sollazzo’s ensuing free throw put the Bucs up 55-54 and they never gave up the lead.
“I knew that ETSU was gonna come out in the second half and ratchet it up,” said first-year Kennesaw State coach Lewis Preston, who played at VMI and was an assistant coach under Ed DeChellis at Penn State. “I think their pressure bothered us in the second half.”
Kennesaw State led 31-23 at halftime thanks to a 4-for-6 performance from 3-point range by Spencer Dixon. The Owls’ lead would have been bigger if not for Hubbard, who went 4 for 6 from the field in the first half while the rest of the team was shooting 24 percent.
“At halftime we talked and we said we’re a better team than that,” said Sollazzo, who also contributed five assists and four steals.
Kennesaw was led by Dixon’s 22 points. He finished 5 of 10 from 3-point range. Markeith Cummings added 17, including 11 in a row at one points. Delbert Love had 10.
ETSU out-rebounded the Owls 33-25 and shot 47 percent. Kennesaw State shot 50 percent.
Bartow will be back with the Bucs for their two-game trip to Florida. They return to action Saturday at Jacksonville and play at North Florida on Monday.
“This was not a fun way to be a head coach, I can tell you that,” Wagers said. “In the back of your mind, you’re thinking of what your buddy is going through. It’s not easy. It’s not easy for the kids. They know our guy is hurting right now. He had to bury his dad. I’m glad we can get the win for him.”