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Bucs know it’s do or die in SoCon tourney

Joe Avento • Updated Mar 9, 2019 at 12:31 AM

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Southern Conference basketball tournament is underway, and this time of year there’s no room for error, no chance of surviving a bad performance. The pressure is on to advance.

“I don’t want to go home any time soon,” East Tennessee State’s all-conference guard Bo Hodges said. “Our goal this year is to win a conference championship and go to the (NCAA) tournament, so this is a big milestone for us.”

ETSU, 23-8 and the tournament’s fourth seed, gets underway Saturday at 2:30 p.m with a quarterfinal game against fifth-seeded Chattanooga (12-19).

Should the Bucs win, it could set up a Sunday semifinal matchup with 22nd-ranked Wofford, which hasn’t lost to a SoCon opponent all year.

Wofford plays in the quarterfinals Saturday at noon against VMI, a 96-83 winner over Western Carolina in a play-in game Friday night.

Even with the possibility of challenging the SoCon’s best just a game away, the Bucs refuse to look ahead. They’ve beaten Chattanooga seven consecutive times, including by 26 and 13 points this season.

Steve Forbes interview

“It’s human nature to look ahead, but in reality, you look ahead and you can get knocked off by anybody,” said ETSU guard Patrick Good, who also made all-conference this week. “Anybody can win on any given night.”

ETSU coach Steve Forbes says he’s confident he has instilled the right attitude in his team to handle the task at hand without worrying about Wofford.

“I think that’s the way they’ve been all year long,” said Forbes, whose teams have made the SoCon finals in each of his first three seasons at ETSU. “I don’t think we’ve ever looked ahead. If you do that, you’re going to get beat.”

As boring as it sounds, to a man, Forbes’ players have been saying they’re taking it one game at a time.

“This is where we wanted to be,” all-conference forward Jeromy Rodriguez said. “We just have to get prepared because if you win, you keep going, but if you lose, you go home. We have to focus on Chat right now.”

TV TIMES

All of Saturday’s quarterfinals and the first of Sunday’s semifinals (4 p.m.) will be televised locally on ABC Tri-Cities. The 4 p.m. semifinal would be the ETSU-Wofford game should they both win Saturday. They will all be on ESPN-Plus as well.

The second semifinal will only be televised on ESPN-Plus. Monday’s championship is on ESPN at 7 p.m.

The other quarterfinal matchups on Saturday are UNC Greensboro vs. Samford at 6 p.m. and Furman against Mercer at 8:30 p.m. Samford beat The Citadel 100-71 in the second play-in game Friday night.

IT’S WOFFORD’S TO LOSE

Wofford comes in with all the momentum, having won all 18 of its regular-season SoCon games and working its way into the Top 25 at No. 22.

The Terriers haven’t been to the tournament final in four years and have played like the most motivated team in the league all season.

Three other teams — ETSU, UNC Greensboro and Furman — feel like they could win the title as well.

“I feel we’re as good as anybody in the tournament, but it’s Wofford’s tournament to lose right now,” Forbes said. “I wouldn’t say it’s wide open because nobody has beaten them. Some teams have come close. Until somebody does, it’s really not that wide open.”

SOCON IN THE NCAA

Wofford will almost certainly earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if it doesn’t win the title on Monday night. Furman has a pretty good chance at an at-large as well based on its body of work. ETSU and UNC Greensboro likely have to win the SoCon tourney to make the NCAA field.

There has been talk of a possible scenario where ETSU wins the tournament, beating Furman in the final, and the SoCon could possibly get three teams into the Big Dance.

It’s not likely, but to even talk about it as a possibility is amazing considering the league has never before gotten two teams in the tournament in one year. It all depends on what happens around the country in other conference tournaments.

“The top four teams in the league went 47-1 against the rest of the league,” Forbes said. “There’s more at stake in this tournament than any of the others (SoCon) ones I’ve been a part of.”

SCOUTING THE MOCS

Kevin Easley, a 6-foot-6 forward, was voted the SoCon’s freshman of the year after averaging 14.4 points per game in the regular season.

The Mocs enter the tournament on a three-game losing streak.

This will be the 16th meeting between the two teams in the tournament. Chattanooga leads the series 8-7.

The two teams have combined for 18 SoCon tournament titles, 11 for the Mocs and seven for the Bucs. That ranks first and second among current members.

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