The final week of the regular season has produced two needed victories and plenty of mystery for the East Tennessee State basketball team.
It began Monday night at Lipscomb, where the Bucs finally secured a spot in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament but lost forward Tommy Hubbard to injury. Then things took a strange turn off the court.
Senior guard Adam Sollazzo and junior forward J.C. Ward, were reportedly bound and gagged in an armed robbery at their on-campus apartment complex late Tuesday night. On Thursday, junior guard Sheldon Cooley was jailed for filing a false police report about the incident and suspended from the team.
Just a few hours later, the shorthanded Bucs went out in the Dome and handily defeated Stetson to move up to fourth place in the league standings.
All of which leads to today’s regular-season finale against Florida Gulf Coast. It’s the last home game for the team’s three seniors – Hubbard, Sollazzo and Isiah Brown – and comes against this backdrop of mixed emotions.
A win will wrap up the No. 4 seed for the tournament next week in Macon, Ga.
Hubbard, who suffered concussion symptoms after hitting the back of his head on the floor less than a minute into the Lipscomb game, just hopes he’s fit to play. He was scheduled to take an impact test after practice Friday that could lead to medical clearance.
“I feel pretty good right now and am optimistic that I’ll be able to play,” he said. “I’d hate to not be out there for my last home game.”
The Bucs will not have the services of Cooley, who remains on indefinite suspension. After a night in jail, the Tampa, Fla., native was arraigned in court Friday morning, standing before the judge in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs. He was released on his own recognizance.
“He’s not going to play tomorrow, and we’ll analyze his situation as the days progress,” said coach Murry Bartow. “He made a mistake. He lied to people, and there are consequences for that.
“I still think Sheldon is a really good kid; he just made a bad decision, and now he’s having to pay the price for it.”
Cooley had started all but one game this season before his suspension and was averaging 9.6 points per game. He may be the team’s most well-rounded player.
“He’s one of our best players,” said Bartow. “He’s a speed guy, an experienced guy, he can score, he’s our leading steals guy. This team hasn’t had much margin for error all season, and we have even less now.”
The Bucs (15-13, 9-8) were able to get by Stetson easily without Cooley and Hubbard. They led 29-19 at the half and went on to break the 70-point barrier for the first time in seven games.
Brown led the way with 22 points and eight rebounds, while Sollazzo had 19 and seven, respectively. Marcus Dubose chipped in with 15 points, and Lukas Poderis pulled down a career-high 11 rebounds.
“It was probably one of our better games, with all the dynamics that were going on around it,” said Bartow.
Brown remains one blocked shot shy of Zakee Wadood’s school record of 182, and that was still very much on his mind Friday.
“I’m not trying to string it out,” he said. “You just can’t tell when blocks are going to happen, but I really want to get it done in front of the home fans.”
The fifth-year senior from Miami just shrugged when asked about his team’s mindset during this topsy-turvy week.
“Our team has always been tested, and this is another one,” he said. “It tests our ability to focus and play together. I really think we’re more together now than we’ve been all year.”
The Bucs face a team tonight that beat them 72-63 in Ft. Myers way back on Dec. 3.
Florida Gulf Coast (13-15, 8-9) has become a much more dangerous team under first-year coach Andy Enfield, a former Florida State assistant. The Eagles are sixth in the league and have qualified for the tournament in their first year of eligibility.
“They’ve already whipped us once, so we obviously have to play better,” said Bartow. “I really like the job this guy has done down there. He’s coached the heck out of this team.”
Bartow may have to do the same to get a split with the Eagles today. He expects his team to again put aside distractions and pull together on a special day for the seniors.
“We’re riding on a lot of emotion, and I can guarantee that everybody on the team will do everything in their power to send these seniors out the right way,” he said. “They’re all good guys, and they’ve all really improved from the first day they stepped on campus. They’re more mature, and much better players. They’ve been part of two NCAA tournament teams. They’ll all walk across the stage in May to get their diplomas. I like them all a lot as people.”
For Hubbard, another fifth-year senior who ventured south from Boston, the journey has been up and down. He’s hoisted championship trophies and battled injuries and even a suspension in the offseason two years ago.
“It hasn’t been a short five years, but it’s been a great five,” he said. “I became a better person on and off the court. I’m going to have two degrees in my back pocket when I leave. I’m not going to forget these years.”