JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Murry Bartow likes what he’s seeing from his team these days. And who can blame him?
East Tennessee State won its fourth consecutive game on Saturday, and this one came on the road.
“We’re starting to play better,” the ETSU coach said after the Bucs dismantled Jacksonville for a 72-58 victory at Veterans Memorial Arena. “We’re playing our best basketball probably right now. We can still do some things better, but we’re playing well.”
The Bucs put together a complete game to improve to 9-7 overall, 4-2 in a tight Atlantic Sun Conference race. Jacksonville (2-15, 0-6) has lost 13 games in a row. ETSU shot 55 percent and played the kind of smothering defense that can carry a team to a long winning streak.
Adam Sollazzo continued his run of stellar play with 18 points and seven assists in 36 minutes. His 3-point shot from the top of the key helped the Bucs turn back the Dolphins’ last gasp as Jacksonville was threatening to get back into the game.
With ETSU holding a 60-39 lead and eight minutes left, Jacksonville scored seven points in a row. Momentum, which had been on ETSU’s side since a 16-0 run midway through the first half, seemed to be changing
Then Sollazzo’s 3-pointer swished through the basket like a dagger in the heart for Jacksonville.
“They were kind of playing off me a little bit,” Sollazzo said. “I feel I’m a good enough shooter to make that shot.”
Sollazzo has made 10 of 22 shots from 3-point range this year, making him the team’s most accurate shooter at 45 percent.
“He’s made 10 of them now this year,” Bartow said. “He’s shooting a pretty good percentage. In his freshman, sophomore and junior years combined, I don’t know if he made five or six.
“He’s a tough guy to match up with. He’s certainly one of the best players in the league right now, if not the best player in the league. He’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
Tommy Hubbard added 16 points for the Bucs, including the first two baskets of the game.
“The last couple games I just tried to be aggressive,” said Hubbard, who also had a game-high nine rebounds. “I just want to keep that going.”
Isiah Brown had 13 points and Sheldon Cooley had 11. Brown finished the scoring with a one-handed alley-oop dunk off a perfect pass from Hubbard. Brown took the ball at its highest point and slammed it through with authority. It was met with approval from the Jacksonville crowd.
While ETSU was making 29 of 53 shots, it was its defense that gave the Dolphins fits. The different zones caused a lot of confusion in Jacksonville’s offense and forced 19 turnovers which the Bucs turned into 23 points.
“It’s kind of who we are right now,” Bartow said. “We’re getting a lot of steals. All seven guys, they all have good hands. It’s really unusual. They are good steal guys. They’re all good deflection guys.”
The defensive pressure held Jacksonville scoreless for a span of 6:17 in the first half and without a field goal for 7:33. It enabled the Bucs to stretch an 18-16 lead to 34-17. The Bucs’ biggest lead of the second half was 22 points.
“I think their size and their length gave us trouble,” Jacksonville coach Cliff Warren said. “I thought they got tipped balls where normally we can reverse it without getting tipped.”
Sollazzo led the way with four steals. He got two of them in a frantic final two minutes. After Jacksonville climbed back into the game, Sollazzo made back-to-back steals and set up teammates for easy baskets.
“I kind of felt like we were letting the game slip away,” Sollazzo said. “I thought we had control, but we started getting a little lackadaisical.”
Jacksonville was led by Aloys Cabell, Keith McDougald and Evin Graham, who each scored 10 points. Cabell was called for an interesting foul in the first half. As he launched a 3-pointer, an official ruled that he stuck out his foot and kicked an ETSU defender. The unusual call was met with laughter from both sides.
The Bucs put their winning streak on the line Monday night with a game at North Florida, the team that beat them in the A-Sun tournament semifinals last year.