NASHVILLE — There was a time Monday night when the East Tennessee State basketball team looked like it might not have to sweat out another thriller against Lipscomb.
Instead, the game followed the series form and was a grinder to the end, with the Bucs prevailing 66-57 to wrap up a postseason berth. They finished the game on a 7-0 run after the Bisons had pulled within two with just over a minute to play.
Isiah Brown led the way with 19 points and 11 rebounds, and the Bucs (14-13, 8-8) survived the early loss of forward Tommy Hubbard. They were guaranteed a spot in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament next week with two regular-season games left, at home against Stetson on Thursday night and Florida Gulf Coast on Saturday.
“It’s scary, and you definitely don’t want to be in that position this late in the season,” said Brown after collecting his second double-double of the season and moving within one blocked shot of the school record. “But we got this win and hopefully we can go home and build some momentum for the tournament.”
The Bisons (12-16, 7-9) have yet to clinch a berth. They’ve lost three of their last four.
The Bucs were able to get by without Hubbard, their leading rebounder and third-leading scorer who was injured just 36 seconds into the game. He took a hard fall after colliding in the air with a Lipscomb player, landing on his back with his head snapping against the hardwood.
Hubbard was able to walk off the court under his own power but did not return to action. After spending time in the lockerroom, he watched the second half of the game from the bench.
The injury brought back memories of the game here last year, when Mike Smith went down right at the start.
“When you lose Tommy, you’re definitely worried about things,” said Bartow. “Fortunately we had a lot of other guys step up and play well.”
Among them was Marcus Dubose, who was left on the bench as Bartow started a bigger lineup that included Lukas Poderis. When Hubbard got hurt and Poderis got in foul trouble, Dubose was right in the mix and responded with 16 points.
Four came from 3-point range, and he scored 11 straight points that pushed the Bucs out to a 12-point lead midway through the second half.
“I just knew I had to step up and taking up the scoring slack, especially with Tommy being out,” said Dubose.
Sheldon Cooley also had a strong game for the Bucs, with 17 points, four assists and three steals.
The Bucs got an unexpected spark from freshman John Walton. The 6-7 forward from Memphis had played only 47 minutes all season, with two points and eight rebounds to show for it.
Walton was on the floor for 21 minutes Monday night and had four steals, three blocked shots and three rebounds.
“What John gives us is length, and he gives us energy,” said Bartow.
The coach thought Brown played “one of his five best games of the year,” outside of seven turnovers. His one blocked shot left him one shy of Zakee Wadood’s school record of 182.
The Bisons played their fourth game without star guard Jordan Burgason, who was dismissed from school after breaking unspecified rules. Burgason had scored a career-high 33 points, with nine 3-pointers, in a 73-65 victory in Johnson City a month ago.
Martin Smith led the Bisons this time with 18 points, including four 3-pointers. Malcolm Smith and Jacob Arnett each scored 11, and Justin Glenn pulled down 13 rebounds.
Lipscomb never led in the game. The Bucs clicked off the first seven points and were caught only once, at 11. It was 26-17 at the half.
ETSU held a double-digit advantage for much of the second half before the Bisons came storming back.
Martin Smith hit back-to-back threes and Arnett added a free throw, and suddenly it was 54-49 with six minutes left. The difference was only two after a Zavion Williams layup at the 4:17 mark.
Still down two, the Bisons had a chance to tie when Glenn walked to the foul line with 2:42 left. But he missed both free throws, and Cooley then made three of four at the other end.
Arnett’s 3-pointer then made it a one-point game, but that was all Lipscomb could manage. The killer was a rainbow 3-pointer by Dubose as he was fading into the right corner with 33 seconds left.
“He was huge,” said Bartow. “And I’ve gotta give him extra credit because he knew we were going with a bigger lineup tonight and wasn’t sure how many minutes he would get.
“I also thought Sheldon Cooley played a phenomenal game with 17 points and nine turnovers.”