The top-seeded Bucs dismantled Western Carolina 97-75 in the semifinals of the Southern Conference tournament in front of another large pro-ETSU crowd at Harrah’s Cherokee Center to advance to the finals for the fourth time in Steve Forbes’ five years as coach.
They’ll face seventh-seeded Wofford in Monday night’s nationally televised championship game with the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament up for grabs. Wofford, the defending champion, beat Chattanooga 72-70 in the other semifinal.
ETSU will be going for its 11th NCAA bid.
“Every once in a while during the season, you get that feeling you’re about to play really well,” Forbes said. “I felt it last night. I could feel it coming. When the ball went up in the air, we played like our hair was on fire.”
ETSU improved to 29-4, breaking the school record for victories in a season. The 1990-91 team went 28-5.
For the second day in a row, sophomore guard Daivien Williamson led the Bucs in scoring, this time with 20 points. He was 7 for 9 from the field — he’s 14 for 16 in two games — and led a balanced attack that had all five starters score in double figures.
Tray Boyd scored 18 points, while Bo Hodges and Isiah Tisdale had 13 apiece and Lucas N’Guessan had 12.
“I thought in the first five minutes, it was ‘game on,’ ” Forbes said. “We were really humming and we played that way for most of the game.”
The Bucs, who completed a three-game sweep of Western Carolina, shot 59 percent from the field and went 8 of 18 from 3-point range. They’ve beaten the Catamounts 28 out of the last 29 meetings between the two schools.
“There’s a reason they are in everybody’s bracket right now,” Western Carolina coach Mark Prosser said. “They’re battle-tested, well coached and have a variety of ways to score inside or outside. For them to go 16-2 in our league, that shows how good they are. Whoever plays them is going to have a hard time.”
FROM THE GET-GO
ETSU played one its more efficient halves of the season, making 15 of its first 23 shots and jumping out to a lead that grew to as many as 25 points in the opening 17 minutes.
“I feel like it’s a real good confidence boost for the squad,” Williamson said. “We knew we were prepared. We knew we were going to play well today. We just had to put it out there for 40 minutes.”
The Bucs cooled off down the stretch, missing their final shots of the first half. Western Carolina’s Tyler Harris rattled in a jump shot at the buzzer, cutting the deficit to 48-30 at halftime.
“We got a lot of really good shots,” Forbes said. “They did a great of sharing the ball, which Is something they’ve done the entire year. I was real proud of the way they played. The pace was fast and that’s the way we wanted it.”
POURING IT ON
Tisdale connected from 3-point range to put the Bucs on top 54-33 and barely had time to end his celebration, which included waving three fingers and putting them in an imaginary holster before he drew a charge. It was an important sequence because if gave Onno Steger, one of Western Carolina’s top players, his fourth foul with 17 minutes to go.
Boyd then drained a 3-pointer of his own and the Bucs were ahead 57-33 and cruising. Their biggest lead was 95-70.
The closest the Catamounts got the rest of the way was within 19. They fell to 19-12.
Hodges, who struggled mightily in the Bucs’ quarterfinal win over VMI, atoned for his performance with a 6-for-9 shooting day. He came up one point short in his bid to become the 42nd player in ETSU history to go over 1,000 points in his career. He didn’t return after picking up his fourth foul with 7:14 left and his team comfortably ahead.
Hodges, an all-conference junior guard, had gone 1 for 8 against VMI.
Boyd was nailed with a technical foul when he got a little too animated after scoring on a contested fadeaway jumper midway through the second half. His teammates corralled him before he could say anything else and make matters worse.
BY THE NUMBERS
The Catamounts were led by Mason Faulker, who did a little bit of everything and a whole lot of scoring.
The all-conference junior guard had 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, all game highs. He went 15 of 17 from the free throw line.
Stenner had 15 points and Carlos Dotson, Western Carolina’s all-conference big man, finished with 11 very quiet points before fouling out.
Monday’s championship game will start at 7 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN.