MACON, Ga. — The East Tennessee State basketball team gathered steam with three wins the last week of the regular season, and it ended up with a little extra incentive for the playoffs.
By landing as the No. 4 seed in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament bracket, the Bucs are paired against North Florida in a quarterfinal today at University Center on the Mercer campus. That’s a team they’ve beaten twice already this season, but one that shocked them in the semifinals on the same floor a year ago.
Memories of that 59-55 loss, as a 2-seed and the defending champs, have lingered in the minds of many of the ETSU players. Senior forward Isiah Brown calls it “still a tough pill to swallow.”
“We’ve haven’t forgotten,” said Brown, “but it’s a new year and you gotta go out and play. This is win or go home. If we can send them home this year, that’s fine with us.”
ETSU coach Murry Bartow has pointed all season to “the three days in Macon,” especially as the losses mounted. The A-Sun is, after all, a one-bid league. Only the team left standing on Saturday will go to the NCAA tournament.
Bartow was in good spirits Wednesday before the Bucs jumped on a bus for the 300-mile drive here.
“I feel really good going into this thing,” he said. “The mind is clear and the energy is great. The last three games, to win them all and almost never trail, we played very well. Ever since the Belmont loss in Nashville, we’ve been about as good as we can be.”
While the Bucs cruised down the stretch, their three wins were against lower-tier teams in the conference. If they get past the Ospreys today, they’ll face Belmont, the defending champion, top seed and only team in the field to sweep them this season.
The Bruins defeated Jacksonville in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, 76-62.
“If that’s the way things play out, so be it,” said Adam Sollazzo, ETSU all-conference point guard. “You’ve got to win three games, and to be the best, you’re probably going to have to beat the best.”
The Bucs, of course, have to win one game first. And that comes against a North Florida team they defeated 64-63 in Jacksonville in mid-January on a free throw by Sollazzo with two seconds left, and 65-50 in Johnson City three weeks ago. Brown scored a career-high 27 points in that one, and the Bucs ran away with a 19-0 second-half run.
Both teams finished the regular season 10-8 in the conference.
The Ospreys are at their best when guards Parker Smith and Jerron Granberry are getting good looks from the perimeter. Smith, a rail-thin 6-3 junior, leads the league with 91 3-pointers, while Granberry is tied for fifth, with 74.
As a team, the Bucs made just 120 — the lowest in the league by far.
“Any matchup makes me nervous,” said Bartow. “We’ve beaten North Florida twice, but the game down there went right to the wire. They have two of the best shooters in the league with Smith and Granberry, and then (Andy) Diaz and (Travis) Wallace are pretty good inside.”
Sollazzo, meanwhile, is trying to finish his ETSU career with a flourish.
He’s the No. 3 scorer (15.0) and assist man (4.4) in the A-Sun, and is fourth in steals (1.7). After being named to the all-conference first team on Monday, he was recognized as the top scholar-athlete for basketball a day later.
“It shows I’ve been working hard all my life,” said Sollazzo. “I also give a lot of credit to my teammates and coaches; the awards are a reflection of our team. The one I’m most proud of is the scholar-athlete. My parents have always stressed that school comes first, and I know my mom is really proud.”
As far as his team drawing strength this week from past experience, Sollazzo says he’s been thinking about two years ago, when the Bucs made a championship run as the 5-seed.
“The core guys who are on the court now were part of that team,” he said. “We remember we had a lot of ups and downs that season. We got some momentum going at the end and carried it through the tournament.
“We can do that again.”
Bartow sees the Bucs as a darkhorse candidate for the title. The team was picked second, behind Belmont, in the preseason.
“It’s very doable, whatever seed we are,” he said. “If you’re No. 1, you’re that for a reason and I don’t want to discount that. Belmont is the best team going into the tournament. And Mercer is right there, playing on its home floor. After that, I’m not sure it matters whether you’re 3, 4, 5 or 6.
“We’ve won it two of the last three years, so I think we’ll play with confidence.”
Notes: It looks like Sheldon Cooley’s junior season is all but officially over.
The Bucs’ starting shooting guard and steals leader has missed the last two games after being suspended for filing a false police report in the wake of a robbery at his apartment a week ago.
“He’s suspended indefinitely until further notice,” Bartow said Wednesday. …
The loss to North Florida here last March is ETSU’s only setback in the series. The teams have played 14 times. …
Brown remains on the brink of tying the school record for blocked shots. He needs one to match Zakee Wadood’s total of 182; he’s been shut out the last two games.