Led by 17 points from senior guard Tianna Tarter and 16 points from freshman Erica Haynes-Overton, the Bucs earned a 54-52 win over UNC-Greensboro in the Southern Conference tournament semifinals on Friday afternoon at the U.S. Cellular Center. In the excitement of the post-game celebration, the person wearing the ETSU mascot uniform tripped on the court and the "Bucky" head came flying off, before he quickly recovered and put it back on.
The excitement was understandable as ETSU had plenty of reason to celebrate.
The victory advances the Bucs (20-11) to Sunday's championship game at noon against top-seeded Mercer, 81-44 winners over Samford, and assured them of at least a berth in the Women's National Invitational Tournament.
"Our men's coach Forbes coined the phrase, 'Meaningful games in March.' But to be able to play in the postseason is a testament to the hard work these kids have put in from July to now," ETSU coach Britney Ezell said. "Basketball season wears you out. It's two semesters and you're grinding in the summer when everyone else is gone to the beach. You're in the weight room and running sprints on the football field.
"It is a reward, but at the same time, we're trying to make it the expectation. I looked at Erica after the game and said, 'This is what you came here for.' I'm happy for our kids and I'm really grateful."
DOWN TO THE WIRE
Still, it took a pair of defensive stops in the final seconds for ETSU to hang on.
After falling behind 18-9 in the first quarter, the Bucs locked down on the defensive end and gave up just four points in the second quarter to tie the game 22-22 at the half. It stayed close throughout the second half with the only double-digit margin being a 47-37 ETSU lead on a Tarter layup with 7:48 left. However, the Spartans scored the next seven points and it was five points or less the rest of the way.
Tarter put ETSU ahead with a short jump shot with 23 seconds left and the Bucs recorded a stop on the defensive end. Britney Snowden made one of two free throws, then after Haynes-Overton came up with the offensive rebound, she was fouled — but missed at the line as well.
It came down to one final opportunity, but UNCG's Te'ja Twitty was double-teamed on her way to the basket and her off-balance shot hit the underside of the rim.
"There were so many ebbs and flows and that game could have gone either way by those kids in white," Ezell said. "Even in the first quarter when we were down by nine, they never wavered. They stayed together and worked for one another. I'm so happy for them, so happy for ETSU and so happy for Johnson City."
Raven Dean and Snowden each finished with eight points and five rebounds. She talked about the team's attitude throughout the season, no matter who the opponent.
"We know our abilities individually and we give great effort," Dean said. "When we do that, we know we can be one of the best teams."
Ije Ajemba had a double-double of 14 points and 14 rebounds to lead UNC-Greensboro, which ended its season at 13-18. Nadine Soliman and Twitty each scored 11 for the Spartans.
ETSU will be going for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009, when it won the last of three straight Atlantic Sun Conference tournament titles. The Bucs are gunning for their first-ever Southern Conference tournament championship.
It won't be an easy task against No. 25-ranked Mercer, which won both regular-season meetings between the teams this season. The Bears won 85-65 in Johnson City and 63-48 just a week ago in Macon, Ga.
But Ezell and the team were more in the mood to celebrate Friday instead of looking ahead.
"I want our kids to enjoy this moment," Ezell said. "Mercer will have its time to be worried about, but not today. Today is for them."