With Johnson City nicknamed "Little Chicago" because of it being a reported hideout of famed gangster Al Capone, the hometown Bucs (3-2) used a strong second half to defeat the team from the city of Chicago 86-61 at Freedom Hall Civic Center.
The win in the first round of the Cayman Islands Classic sets up a matchup with Sam Houston State (3-3) in Tuesday's championship game at 7 p.m. The Cougars (0-6) will battle Jackson State (0-4) in the consolation game at 4 p.m.
Jeromy Rodriguez led the way with 18 points and 12 rebounds. Tray Boyd III also ended with 18 points, including going 6-for-10 behind the 3-point arc. Patrick Good finished with 14 points, including four 3-point goals, and Daivien Williams had 10 points. Mladen Armus barely missed a double-double with nine points and 11 rebounds.
"We just had to go out there and play hard," Rodriguez said. "In the beginning, we didn't play that hard, but we came back and played hard in the second half. Sometimes, you take teams too lightly. We've got to out there and grind no matter who we're playing."
Anthony Harris had 20 points and Rob Shaw ended with 18 to lead Chicago State.
But, the Cougars had no answer for the Bucs depth with ETSU having a 38-0 advantage in bench scoring. For ETSU coach Steve Forbes, the win was about a better overall effort in the second half. Down 28-27 at the intermission, the Bucs outscored the Cougars 59-33 over the final 20 minutes.
"We didn't play well during certain stretches of the game," ETSU coach Steve Forbes said. "We started the game hot and then… I didn't see that with this team because I know this team can really make baskets. We just haven't shown it consistently. We have in spurts. We have some things that need to be corrected, but there is a quick turnaround with a game tomorrow and a game Saturday, so these guys are learning on the fly."
ETSU kept letting the ball fly, finishing 10-for-27 from 3-point range after hitting just 3-of-15 in the first half. For Boyd, it was the mentality to keep firing shots.
"We were taking good shots in the first half, so you just have to keep shooting," Boyd said. "You have to have that shooter's mentality because they're going to fall sooner or later."
The Bucs were without starting wing Bo Hodges, who was out with a groin injury for a second straight game. He will likely miss Tuesday's game as well.
ETSU continues to dominate on the inside, with a 37-21 rebounding advantage including 13-5 on the offensive end. Forbes called the rebounding the most consistent thing his team has done all season and it led to the Bucs outscoring the Cougars 18-0 in second-chance points. The Bucs were also effective at the free-throw line, making 20 of 23 attempts (87 percent).
BUCS SCORING DROUGHT
ETSU pulled out to an early 23-11 advantage before the Cougars hit back-to-back 3-point shots as part of an 15-1 run to take a 26-24 lead on Shaw's short jumper in the paint. The Cougars maintained the lead, ahead 28-27 at the halftime, as ETSU hit just 9 of 27 from the.
The Bucs, who had gone up by 12 on a James Harrison layup, didn't hit a field goal the final 8:40 of the first half. While glad to get the win, Forbes wasn't happy with the overall performance, the offensive woes in the first half and the Cougar hitting 52 percent from the field in the second half.
"The numbers look good, but I don't feel that tonight," Forbes said. "Give our guys credit, I've seen some teams lose that game. I want the (offensive) numbers in the first half when the game is on the line. Just to win is not enough sometimes. It's how you win."
Sam Houston St. 75, Jackson St. 60
Up by just one at halftime, the Bearkats (3-3) scored 11 unanswered points midway through the second half to down the Tigers (0-4).
RJ Smith, Kai Mitchell and Chad Bowie scored a dozen points each to lead Sam Houston, which also got 11 points from Bubba Furlong. Chris Howell had 13 points and 12 rebounds for Jackson State, which also got a 13-point effort from Venji Walls.
The Bearkats held advantages of 40-31 in rebounds and 15-9 in assists.