First the team learned that Coach Steve Forbes’ father had died and he would miss Wednesday’s postseason game. Then as the Bucs warmed up before facing Green Bay in the Collegeinsider.com Postseason Tournament, their two starting inside players were wearing jeans.
Jeromy Rodriguez and Mladen Armus missed the game. They were both in concussion protocol for injuries they suffered in the Southern Conference semifinal loss to Wofford, 11 days earlier.
It all added up to a season-ending 102-94 loss to a Green Bay team that came in barely over .500 and shot lights-out in the first half.
“Not the way we wanted to end it,” said assistant coach Jason Shay, who was running the team in absence of Forbes, who turns 54 Friday.
The absences of Rodriguez and Armus weren’t found out about until right before the game because the media was kept out of the practice facility this week as interviews were held in the hallway outside the court.
Starting shooting guard Patrick Good also missed the game. He had been hobbled by a bad hip all season and had become less and less effective toward the end of the season. He was shut down and is awaiting surgery next week.
Without the two big men — Rodriguez led the Southern Conference in rebounding and Armus can be a force in the paint as well — Green Bay got to the rim for easy baskets much of the night. The Phoenix also out-rebounded ETSU, which came in as the national leader in rebound margin.
Shay wasn’t making excuses, but when a team is missing that kind of muscle in the paint, it changes the complexion of the game. Green Bay shot 72 percent in the first half and even when it cooled off after halftime, without ETSU’s meat in the middle, the Phoenix got seven offensive rebounds.
When Green Bay jumped out to an 18-point lead in the first half, it looked bleak for ETSU.
Despite a dire confluence of circumstances that had everything going against the Bucs the entire day, they somehow rallied.
When they finally got over the hump and pulled ahead 90-81, the crowd of 2,817 at Freedom Hall was getting into the game. It seemed like the short-handed home team had turned the corner and was on the way to a rousing come-from-behind victory.
With Rodriguez and Armus likely to be ready for the next game, things were looking up.
Instead, the ETSU players seemed to let out a collective exhale, figuring the hard work had been done. The Bucs stopped making plays.
Green Bay closed the game on a 21-4 run that left the Bucs stunned. The ETSU players admitted afterward they might have relaxed once they got the lead. When they stopped playing with the same intensity that got them there, their season was over.
“You just can’t do that here in March leading into April,” Shay said. “The other team wants to win just as badly as you do. They want to advance. They want to keep their season alive, survive and advance at this time of year.
“We had a little bit of fight and resilience. I thought they competed. When they do what we tell them to do, we’re a pretty good basketball team. We’ve got to be more consistent as we move forward.”
Moving forward, the Bucs can return every player except reserve forward James Harrison, who competed admirably in his final appearance in an ETSU uniform. The addition of a consistent
scorer could make this team the favorite to win the Southern Conference next season.
They also have to develop a killer instinct, something that was missing most of this season even though the team went 24-10.
“We learned that we don’t know how to finish games,” said guard Kevon Tucker, who briefly turned into Fletcher Magee and made 5 of 7 3-pointers while scoring 17 points. “A lot of games this season we had a lead and we let the lead go. Now we know that we have to keep the intensity up if we want to be a championship caliber team.”