ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Western Carolina connected on an early knockout punch and East Tennessee State’s stay at the Southern Conference basketball tournament was just as short as it was last year.
The Catamounts jumped out to a quick 16-point lead and held off ETSU for a 69-57 victory in the quarterfinals of the SoCon tournament Saturday at Harrah’s Cherokee Center.
“I was disappointed in that I never felt like it was a game,” said ETSU coach Desmond Oliver, whose team finished his second season 12-20. “I feel like from start to finish we were playing from behind double digits and we could never really get comfortable enough where it was a close game.”
The Catamounts (19-14) advanced to Sunday’s semifinals, where they will face Furman. Western Carolina, a team the Bucs had beaten 17 times in a row at one point in recent memory, got the best of ETSU for the third time this season.
“They punched us in the mouth early,” said ETSU center Jalen Haynes, who led all scorers with 23 points and added 10 rebounds and four assists.
In a building the Bucs used to own, they sent their fans back to Johnson City without a win for the second year in a row. After Jordan King scored early to forge a 2-2 tie, the Catamounts began to pull away, doing as they pleased offensively. They were 7 of 11 on 3-pointers in the first half and when they weren’t connecting from long range, they were slicing through the ETSU defense for uncontested layups and dunks.
“I always tell our guys we want to try to go from good to great,” Western Carolina coach Justin Gray said about his team’s shot selection. “Sometimes you get those same shots and you don’t make them.”
When Haynes scored just before the halftime buzzer to cut Western Carolina’s lead to 41-26, he walked off the court gesturing. The Bucs’ center wasn’t happy with what had been going on and he was letting his teammates know about it.
“It was just something out of character,” Haynes said. “I was talking to my staff and the players, like ‘Let’s keep playing. Let’s keep attacking these guys.’ ”
Haynes was the Bucs’ only consistent threat and he paid the price. He was 7 for 10 from the field and was fouled 13 times. He made 9 of 13 shots from the free throw line.
King finished with 18 points, but struggled with his shot as the Catamounts began to pull away. He finished 6 of 19. Jaden Seymour pulled down 10 rebounds.
Western Carolina grabbed its biggest lead at 61-43 on Tyzhaun Claude’s dunk and Oliver called timeout before Claude had come down from hanging on the rim.
Claude led the Catamounts with 15 points. Tre Jackson added 14 and Vonterius Woolbright added 10 points and 10 rebounds.