MACON, Ga. — Isiah Brown stood tall against North Florida on Thursday, and that’s the main reason the East Tennessee State basketball team is still playing.
The senior forward scored 22 points and blocked a potential go-ahead 3-pointer by sharpshooter Parker Smith in the final minute as the Bucs defeated the Ospreys 68-66 in the Atlantic Sun Conference quarterfinals.
“I just did what I’ve been doing,” said Brown, who has scored at least 20 points in his last three games and now owns the school record for career blocks. “We’re playing good basketball right now.”
The victory sends the fourth-seeded Bucs (17-13) into a semifinal matchup with Belmont (25-7), the top seed and defending champion, tonight at 6 at University Center. Host Mercer will face Florida Gulf Coast, a 71-61 winner over USC-Upstate in the nightcap.
The Bucs ran their winning streak to four games by eliminating the team that put them out in the semifinals here last season. It’s their only loss in the series.
“There was definitely some motivation with them knocking us out last season, some talk among the three seniors,” said ETSU point guard Adam Sollazzo. “But we’re just trying to get a championship. It doesn’t matter who’s standing in front of us.”
Sollazzo and Marcus Dubose finished with 13 points apiece for the Bucs, who shot 51 percent from the field. Tommy Hubbard hustled his way to 11 points, 10 rebounds and six steals.
ETSU coach Murry Bartow used only six men in the contest, and five of them played at least 33 minutes. He was just glad to survive and get another shot at Belmont, a team that has bedeviled them ever since they joined the A-Sun.
The Bruins have won 14 of their last 17 meetings and were the only team in the league to sweep the Bucs during the regular season.
“We’ve seen them a lot, and they’re very good,” said Bartow. “I’m just glad we’re in the game. We’ve won two of the last three (tournaments), and there will not be a lack of confidence on our side. We believe we can win.”
The Bruins should be the fresher team. They had Thursday off after defeating Jacksonville 76-62 on Wednesday.
The Bucs improved to 14-1 against North Florida, but this one went down to the wire, much like the one-point game in Jacksonville in January.
The Bucs led by seven after a pair of free throws by Sollazzo with 4:33 left, but Charles McRoy answered with a runner for the Ospreys and Jerron Granberry tossed in a long 3-pointer.
The lead was suddenly two, and North Florida was working the ball around the perimeter with a chance to tie or go ahead. Smith, who leads the conference in 3-pointers this season, went up for a long shot but was smothered by Brown.
The blocked shot was No. 183 of his career — one more than Zakee Wadood posted from 2000-04. He had been stuck on 181 for the last two games.
“Plays will be made when it’s time to make them,” said Brown.
The record-breaking play ended up with the ball still in North Florida hands, but a pass was deflected and stolen by Dubose, who drove for a layup with 46 seconds left to make it 68-64.
Brown had a chance to expand the lead but missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Smith scored on a bank shot off the glass at the other end with 25 seconds left. Dubose was then fouled and went to the stripe and missed.
The Ospreys had the ball and another shot. They frantically tried to get it to Granberry on the arc, but Hubbard was stuck to him like Velcro. When the ball finally ended up in Smith’s hands, the 6-8 Brown closed out on him and he launched an airball at the horn.
“That wasn’t the shot I wanted,” said Parker, who led the Ospreys with 17 points but was 5 of 17 from 3-point range. “I thought Jerron was going to take the shot, and I was going in to rebound.”
Granberry finished with 12 points but was 2 of 9 from behind the arc. The Ospreys also got 10 points and four assists from Jimmy Williams.
Coach Matthew Driscoll’s team headed home at 16-16. He couldn’t help but think back on an early 10-point advantage, when his offense was flowing.
“We got up big early, but they did a good job coming back,” said Driscoll. “Their seniors played 38, 38, 39 minutes, and they did what seniors do. You have to give them credit.”
The Ospreys really had no answer again for Brown, who had scored his career high, 27 points, in the teams’ last meeting.
“We doubled him and fronted him; I bet we tried four different things against him,” said Driscoll. “I’m surprised he was not an all-league player, as well as he’s played this year.”
The ETSU offense, which has struggled for most of the season, has been much more efficient lately. It’s no coincidence that Brown has been scoring more.
“We’ve gotten a little smarter the last six or seven games,” said Bartow, “and we’ve gotten him more touches. He’s been a high-percentage guy his whole career. It’s good to let him take the ball and see what he can do.”