The rematch of the Southern Conference basketball tournament championship game lived up to its billing Thursday night as East Tennessee State won a slugfest over UNC Greensboro, 68-58, at Freedom Hall.
It was the Bucs’ 11th win in their last 12 games and they improved to 13-4 overall. More importantly, they’re 4-0 in the SoCon and all four wins have been by double-digits.
ETSU had a balanced attack and pulled away in the second half, using a 22-6 run to seize control. Jalan McCloud led the Bucs with 15 points, while freshman Mladen Armus had 13, Desonta Bradford had 12 and Peter Jurkin added 11.
“We knew it was going to be a good game and we had to stick to doing what we do,” Bradford said.
The Bucs’ main goal was to slow Francis Alonso, the SoCon’s third-leading scorer. With Jermaine Long harassing him all night, Alonso was held to 10 points, more than eight below his average. He made 4 of 11 shots while turning the ball over five times.
“I think he just stayed in his hip pocket,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes said of Long, one of the peskiest defenders in the conference. “And that’s hard. That guy’s well conditioned and he’s really smart.”
Long played 28 minutes and took only two shots, yet it was his performance that drew most of his coach’s praise.
“There’s a lot of things that go into having a great team and some of that’s chemistry and knowing your role,” Forbes said. “He knows his role.”
A crowd of 5,038 added to the electric atmosphere and they got what they came to see.
Alonso and Marvin Smith hit 3-pointers early in the second half and suddenly the Spartans were up 37-32. That was the biggest lead for either team to that point.
“They punched us right in the mouth,” Forbes said. “I called timeout and challenged my team.”
ETSU then put on a press and it produced results in back-to-back baskets that led to the 22-6 run.
After Bo Hodges’ dunk put ETSU up 54-43, Alonso got free for a 3-pointer and the crowd let out a collective groan. But ETSU was able to hold on down the stretch. The biggest lead was 12 points.
The Spartans (11-5, 2-1) were led by Smith’s 11 points. Kyrin Galloway added 10.
The Bucs out-rebounded UNCG 37-35, but gave up 18 offensive boards, which were there for the taking since the Spartans shot 33 percent from the field. ETSU made 52 percent of its shots.
The Bucs flashed a glimpse of the future late when two freshmen roommates teamed up for a nifty basket. Hodges, who finished with nine points, drove the lane and dished to Armus for a layup.
“They don’t back down from the moment,” Forbes said. “They played late in the game, in the big moments, and I trust them. That’s sometimes hard to do with freshmen.”
UNCG was plagued by foul trouble all night. Francis picked up his third foul 15 seconds into the second half and James Dickey, the SoCon’s leading rebounder, was called for his fourth with more than 16 minutes left.
In Dickey’s absence, the Bucs took advantage inside. They scored 42 points in the paint and Jurkin and Armus combined to shoot 10 for 12 and grab 13 rebounds.
The fouls could have proved more costly to the Spartans, but the Bucs missed nine of 26 free throws.
CLOSE FROM THE START
Neither team led by more than three points in the first half and the Bucs held a 28-27 halftime lead that wasn’t secure until Jurkin swatted Malik Massey’s layup into the second row at the buzzer.
Alonso made 1 of 6 shots in the opening 20 minutes and had two points at halftime.
“They just made it tough on him,” UNCG coach Wes Miller said. “He’s accustomed to getting guarded. Francis is going to see everybody’s best shot and he’s going to get schemed every time he takes the floor in this league. They did a terrific job on him.”
ETSU plays host to Virginia Military Institute on Saturday at 4 p.m. while UNCG plays at Western Carolina.