Length, however, was the tipping point.
The athletic Cougars were able to convert some tough shots over outstretched defensive arms in the lane, and they grabbed 19 offensive rebounds — with the combination leading to Saturday’s 84-77 win over the Bucs at Brooks Gym.
“(Their length) was an annoying nuisance,” said ETSU head coach Brittney Ezell. “They are long and athletic and are picked third in their league behind UConn and South Florida. They will out-athlete you, and if you try to take that away they are able to hit some jumpers. They hit some floaters down the stretch that were just killers.”
ETSU lost for the ninth time in 10 games this season while Houston improved to 4-5.
Leading 66-65 with six minutes remaining, the Cougars got a big 3-pointer from Dorian Branch. A fast-break bucket by Octavia Barnes made it 71-65 with 4:47 to go.
ETSU’s Lexus Spears cut it back to four points on two different occasions with tough buckets in the paint, but the Bucs couldn’t get any closer down the stretch.
Houston didn’t have many answers on the defensive end for Spears. The Bucs’ post player totaled 21 points on 10 of 13 shooting from the field in 24 minutes of action.
“I always remind myself I’m my biggest competitor, and I can’t be stopped unless I stop myself,” said Spears, who also had three blocked shots. “Even with their long arms, I just focused on putting the ball in the basket.”
While Houston struggled to stop Spears, it didn’t struggle on the glass when it had the ball. The Cougars grabbed 21 offensive rebounds and won the overall board battle, 47-33.
Things started rocking for ETSU late in the third quarter. Trailing 59-43 with 3:43 remaining, the Bucs closed with a rush and a 15-4 spurt made it a five-point game heading into the fourth quarter.
Then the Bucs scored the first five points of the final quarter to tie the game at 63-63. ETSU tied it again at 65.
“If you watched us from the beginning of the season until now, the level of improvement is remarkable,” said Ezell. “Early in the season, we might have dropped that game by 20 points, but the fight in these kids is unrelenting.”
ETSU’s Erica Haynes-Overton didn’t shoot it well (3 of 16 from the field), but still contributed an impressive stat line of 11 points, eight steals, eight assists and seven rebounds. Kaia Upton added 11 points and five assists for the Bucs.
The Lady Cougars had four players in double figures with Tatyana Hill leading the way with 18 points. Angela Harris totaled 15, Branch added 12, and Alyssa Okoene finished with 10. Barnes added six points and 11 rebounds.
ETSU came out fired up, especially on the defensive end. The Bucs were controlling the paint, and built a 17-6 advantage. But Houston was able to gain its footing and trailed only 22-17 at the end of the period.
The Cougars caught fire offensively, racing up and down the court and finishing the quarter with 29 points. That changed a five-point deficit into a 46-38 edge going into the locker room.
ETSU plays host to Liberty on Tuesday with tipoff set for 7 p.m.