East Tennessee State closed the regular season with its third consecutive home loss Sunday, falling 79-76 to Furman in a Southern Conference basketball game in front of a Senior Day crowd of 5,908 at Freedom Hall.
“Ultimately, it’s my fault,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes said. “I’m in charge of the program. I’m in charge of getting this team prepared to play and to play at a high championship level. That’s on me. It’s not the kids. It’s my fault. I have to find a better way to get these guys to finish.”
The Bucs, who won 16 games in a row at one point to tie the school record, have lost four of their last five and will enter the conference tournament as the second seed. For the third time this week, they missed a chance to claim a share of the SoCon regular-season title.
UNC Greensboro clinched the regular-season championship later Sunday with a victory over Samford.
ETSU fell to 23-8 overall, 14-4 in the SoCon. One win over the final three games — all at home — would have given the Bucs a share of the conference championship. Winning two of three would have given them the outright title.
Instead, they lost 84-82 to The Citadel and 75-71 to Wofford before Sunday’s setback.
“We were in the driver’s seat,” Forbes said. “We only have to look in the mirror to say we didn’t get it done because we didn’t win. We didn’t have to rely on anybody else. We had everything right in front of us. We didn’t do it.
“We’re 14-4, but I feel like we’re 4-14. It’s a bad feeling. I don’t like that, but that’s just the way it is. That’s life. We have to fight out of it. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us.”
This one wasn’t over until Devontavius Payne’s potential tying 3-point shot rolled out at the buzzer. A game that was tied eight times and had 13 lead changes came down to Furman’s John Davis on the foul line with five seconds left. His team was clinging to a 78-76 lead.
Davis made the first free throw but missed the second. ETSU’s Bo Hodges grabbed the rebound, dribbled and fired a line drive pass cross the court to Payne on the right wing. The lefty’s shot was on target, but the basket spit it out and the Paladins ran onto the court to celebrate.
“It looked good, felt good too,” Payne said.
After Jalan McCloud’s free throw forged a 71-71 tie with 1:43 left, Furman’s Devin Sibley, the SoCon’s reigning player of the year, made a 3-pointer and was fouled. The free throw put the Paladins up 75-71 with 1:26 left and the Bucs never caught them again.
The Bucs will open the SoCon tournament in the quarterfinals Saturday at 6 p.m against the winner of Friday night’s Chattanooga-Samford game. The tournament is being played at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, North Carolina.
ETSU is the defending champion.
“It’s not the end of the world,” said Bucs guard Desonta Bradford, who scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half. “We still have a lot of basketball to play. We’re still capable of winning the whole thing. It’s a new season. Everybody’s 0-0 now, so the regular season is out the window. We have to regroup, refocus and get ready for Asheville.”
The Paladins improved to 22-9 overall, 13-5 in the SoCon. They’re the third seed in the conference tournament and will take on Western Carolina in Saturday’s 8:30 p.m. quarterfinal.
BY THE NUMBERS
David Burrell had 15 points for ETSU, while Payne and McCloud each had 13. The Bucs blocked 11 shots, led by Payne’s three.
ETSU missed three free throws in the final 2:13 and went 12 for 19 from the line. Furman was 21 for 28 on foul shots.
Sibley scored 17 points to lead five Paladins in double figures. Matt Rafferty had 14, Davis and Daniel Fowler each had 12 and Andrew Brown added 11.
The Paladins went 10 for 20 from 3-point range, including making their final three in the last four minutes.
Forbes said that was the difference in the game.
“You can finish in a lot of different ways,” he said. “I think a lot of people think about finishing on offense, but if you get stops, then you win it. We just never stopped them when it was really time to win the game.”