The Bucs rallied from a double-digit, second-half deficit to beat Western Carolina in a dramatic 68-67 regular-season finale in Johnson City on Saturday, Feb. 29.
On Sunday at 4 p.m., they will face off in the Southern Conference tournament semifinals in Harrah’s Cherokee Center.
No. 1-seeded ETSU (28-4) won as expected 70-57 over VMI in Saturday’s quarterfinal round. The No. 5-seeded Catamounts (19-11) had an easier-than-expected 70-56 win over No. 4 Mercer.
ETSU coach Steve Forbes expects to see a contest with Western more like the game in Johnson City than an 85-66 victory in Culhowee on Jan. 18. He alluded to ETSU guard Patrick Good, who scored 17 points in the final five minutes for the Bucs to pull out the narrow victory.
“You saw what happened a week ago. It took a superhuman effort by one person to beat them,” Forbes said. “We have to be able to defend the dribble better. I thought we corrected those problems this week. We have to do that against them and play Dotson on the inside. They have one of the best offensive teams, if not the best offensive team, in the league.”
To Forbes’ point, the Catamounts led the league with 80.5 points per game, nearly seven more than ETSU’s average. Western hit 70 percent from the field in the second half against Mercer. Junior guard Mason Faulkner scored a game-high 22 points, while beefy 6-foot-7 senior post Carlos Dotson hit 7 of 9 shots and finished with 19 points.
Western Carolina coach Mark Prosser is ready for the rematch, talking about the atmosphere of a sold-out Freedom Hall for the Johnson City game.
“It was a great college basketball game,” Prosser said. “They made one more play than we did and we were disappointed, obviously, in the locker room. In that environment, it was a hard place to play. That was one of the loudest arenas I’ve ever been in. They started making those plays and my ears were literally ringing.
“I think we have a confident group and we gained confidence in that environment. We aren’t satisfied with a close game. That’s not what we came here for. We look forward to the challenge as great as it is.”
Matt Halvorsen, the Catamounts’ junior guard from Kingsport, logged 35 minutes in Saturday’s win over Mercer. He expects a sold-out arena Sunday with the way both fan bases supported their teams in the quarterfinal round.
For him, the game against ETSU is personal, although the numbers favor the Bucs. ETSU has won 10 straight in the rivalry and 27 of the last 28 meetings.
“I would expect a really good crowd playing against them,” Halvorsen said. “It’s always fun playing against them. I want to get one on them because I know quite a few of their guys.”
THAT’S NOT ALL, FOLKS
Forbes quickly corrected Tray Boyd when he said the Bucs had to win one more game. The coach signaled to the ETSU senior guard that the Bucs need two more wins for the Southern Conference tournament championship.
Forbes admitted his own team is an extremely difficult matchup for an opposing coach. The Bucs went nine players deep early in Saturday’s win and paid off with Joe Hugley coming through with 11 first-half points. Hugley was one of four ETSU players in double digits.
Daivien Williamson led the Bucs with 15 points, followed by Isaiah Tisdale and Boyd, who each scored 12. Jeromy Rodriguez, who has battled a foot injury most of the season, had six points and five rebounds.
“That’s the beauty of our team,” Forbes said. “We are a team, very deep and we can beat you in many different ways. With our personnel, especially with Jeromy, we are a legit nine-deep. We’ve had eight different leading scorers this year. That tells you the kind of team we have.”
THE SCHOOL RECORD
The Bucs tied the school record for wins in a season with 28. That mark was held solely by the 1990-91 team, led by Mister Jennings, which reached a No. 10 ranking in the Associated Press poll. While Forbes paid respect to that Bucs team, he talked about this season’s team still having goals to achieve.
“That’s not what we came here for. We came here for bigger things,” Forbes said. “Truthfully, it’s something we will talk about when we’re done and have a big party. Right now, we’ve got to stay focused. It’s an honor because I know the team who owns that record was really good.
“We’ve tied it, now we’ve got to break it. We want to own it like we wanted to own the conference championship at the end of the year. We didn’t want to share it. We wanted to win it.”