ASHEVILLE, N.C. — One more win and the Bucs are going dancing.
But it’s going to be a tough one.
East Tennessee State University advanced to the championship game of the Southern Conference basketball tournament with an 84-76 victory over Furman on Sunday in the semifinals.
The second-seeded Bucs (23-10) will meet top-seeded Chattanooga in the championship game Monday at 9 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN2 and the winner earns the SoCon’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Mocs (28-5) hung on to beat Western Carolina, 73-69, in the other semifinal.
“Our season started at 6 a.m. on ESPN and now this thing is going to finish on ESPN,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes said. “They deserve that.”
Ge’Lawn Guyn led the Bucs with 22 points. Desonta Bradford added 15, Isaac Banks had 12 and T.J. Cromer had 11.
Chattanooga swept the Bucs in the regular season.
“It’s a great moment,” Guyn said. “We’re just looking to play ETSU basketball. It’s not about them. It’s about us. They’re a great team but we have to play our game.”
The Bucs made it a point to shut down SoCon player of the year Stephen Croone, and they did just that. Croone, who came in averaging 17.2 points per game, didn’t score over the first 30 minutes and finished with nine points.
The senior guard had scored in double figures in 22 consecutive games.
“Our team has evolved into a pretty darn good defensive team,” Forbes said. “It wasn’t that way in the beginning. Tonight we really defended. Stephen Croone is a good player. He’s a hard guard and we did a good job.”
Guyn insisted he wasn’t trying to outduel Croone to show the voters that he deserved the player of the year award, but the intensity on his face throughout the game showed how important it was.
“Stephen’s a great player,” Guyn said “It was nothing personal. It was about my team. I just wanted to win.”
Devin Sibley led the Paladins (18-15) with 29 points, tying his career high set last year at ETSU. Kris Acox added 17 points and 11 rebounds.
For the second game in a row, the Bucs went 24 for 27 from the free throw line. They made 21 of 22 in the second half and all 12 of their attempts in the final two minutes.
“I don’t talk about free throws much,” Forbes said. “I think it’s just a mental thing and toughness, just stepping up and making them. We have some tough guys.”
As has become his habit, Bradford scored several important points for the Bucs late in the game. He had 13 points in the second half.
The sophomore guard swished a 3-pointer with 13:20 left to put ETSU up 52-39 and brought the contingent of fans who made the trip over the mountain to their feet. He added a dunk off of a miss Banks and a driving shot he spun off the backboard for a 64-51 advantage.
“I can’t say enough about how he’s progressed throughout the year,” Forbes said. “He might be the most improved player in the league. He’s been phenomenal. These guys right here, who are all-league, trust him. That says a lot.”
Bradford made all four of his shots in the second half.
“These guys believe in me,” Bradford said. “That does a lot for me. It boosts my confidence that they believe in me to make plays to win games.”
Furman’s biggest lead came at 25-20, but Lester Wilson erased that by himself with back-to-back 3-pointers.
“I don’t think we ever led after that,” Furman coach Niki Medved said. “We kind of played close. They just pulled away.”
ETSU shot 54 percent from the field, made 8 of 15 from 3-point range and turned the ball over only five times.
“When I got this job, I said we wanted to play meaningful games in March,” Forbes said. “And here we are, about to play the most meaningful one we can play.”