East Tennessee State’s Lady Bucs still think they’re capable of winning three games next week at the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament.
Unfortunately, they’ll have to pick up where the regular season left off.
Florida Gulf Coast became only the third team ever to complete an unbeaten run through the conference with a hard-earned 71-64 victory Saturday in the Dome.
The Lady Eagles made a 20-point turnaround in the first half and then held on down the stretch to run their win streak to 18 games. At 26-2 this season, they’ve now beaten ETSU five straight and seven of nine overall.
The teams will meet again in the opening game of the A-Sun tournament next Wednesday at noon in Macon, Ga., and ETSU coach Karen Kemp was holding out hope that something special could happen for an 8-seed with 21 losses.
“I think we’re at a good place now,” she said. “At one point I thought we were ready for this to be over, but the last couple of weeks I could see that we’re not.
“We’ve got a new season coming up, and all we have to do is win three games. I believe we can do that.”
There were some reasons for optimism on the ETSU side Saturday, most of them having to do with Destiny Mitchell. The sophomore forward continued her dominance in the paint over the last month with 23 points and a career-high 20 rebounds as the Lady Bucs controlled the glass 47-31.
It was her ninth double-double in the last 11 games.
“I was just going to the boards and getting putbacks; it wasn’t anything new,” said Mitchell, whose previous rebounding high was 14. “I’m just trying to do whatever it takes.”
The Lady Bucs (8-21, 7-11) had only two players score in double figures. Senior forward Gwen Washington netted 14 points in her last home game to go over 1,000 for her career.
“It means a lot,” she said. “It’s been a good four years, a lot of good memories.”
The team’s other two seniors had fairly quiet games. Natalie Pickwell had eight points and nine rebounds; Tarita Gordon had nine points and five assists.
Pickwell, the Kingsport native, has come to appreciate the difficulty of beating Florida Gulf Coast during her four years at ETSU.
“They have a different style of play than most teams,” she said. “The open threes killed us today.”
The Lady Eagles made 10 of 25 from behind the arc, which is one fewer than their season average, which leads the nation. The Lady Bucs were 0 of 7.
Still, it was a competitive game right to the finish.
ETSU bolted out to a 13-4 lead after seven minutes, but Gulf Coast answered with a 10-point run. By halftime, the Lady Eagles had built a 34-23 lead.
“ETSU came out strong and motivated,” said sophomore guard Sarah Hansen, who led the winners with 20 points and 12 rebounds. “We were down nine before we really got anything going. We haven’t been in that situation much this season.”
Indeed, the Lady Eagles have won their games by an average of 22 points. They weren’t able to run away this time, thanks to the savvy play of Mitchell and Washington inside.
A three-point play by Mitchell, and then two free throws, cut the Gulf Coast lead to 51-46 with 9:31 left. The Lady Eagles pushed their edge back to double digits and kept it there before hitting a scoring drought in the last five minutes.
When Pickwell came alive with three straight baskets, it was a five-point game again with 55 seconds left. The Lady Eagles were able to go to the foul line and seal it, matching the Florida International teams of 1993 and ‘96 as the league’s only unbeaten regular-season champions.
They now set their sights on the real prize - an NCAA tournament berth. This is the first year Gulf Coast has been eligible to compete, having gone through a four-year reclassifying period as a former Division II program.
“It’s really exciting for our school, and everybody is behind us,” said Hansen. “We’re in a conference that doesn’t get much recognition in the women’s game, so we’re hoping to get to the NCAAs and see what we can do.”
Kelsey Jacobson and Eglah Griffin each scored 12 points for the Lady Eagles, and Amber Rechis had 11. Jacobsen and Rechis each hit three 3-pointers.