Holding Furman to just 19-of-60 from the field (31.7 percent) and 4-of-26 from 3-point range (15.4 percent), the defending tournament champion Bucs rolled to the semifinal victory.
It now sets up a showdown of the No. 2 seed Bucs (25-8) and No. 1 seed UNC Greensboro in Monday’s championship game at 9 p.m. at the U.S. Cellular Center. It will be televised on ESPN2.
The defensive effort, along with a 20-point, eight-rebound performance by Southern Conference player of the year Desonta Bradford, came just a week after Furman hit 10 of 20 shots from behind the arc to hand ETSU a loss in Johnson City.
“I’ve been coaching a long time and told the guys in the locker room tonight, that’s as good a defensive effort I’ve seen in 29 years,” said ETSU coach Steve Forbes, whose teams have reached the SoCon finals in all three of his years in Johnson City. “They really, really guarded for 40 minutes and I was so proud of them defensively.
“The credit goes to the players. It’s nothing too technical. It’s something we’ve been doing all year long. I’ve been proud many times, but I’m so proud of the way these kids battled today.”
In addition to Bradford, the Bucs got a 12-point effort from Devontavius Payne and freshman Mladen Armus came through with 10 points and 12 rebounds. The Paladins (23-10) had just one double-digit scorer, Jordan Lyons, with 17 points.
It was the second game in a row in which ETSU coach Steve Forbes put freshmen Bo Hodges and Armus in the starting lineup, a move that has paid immediate dividends.
“Bo has been Bo all year long. He has been a consistent performer,” Forbes said. “Mladen was so tired at the end, he had to give me a Serbian signal with his arms crossed that he wanted a time out. He plays so hard. I can’t imagine what those two guys are going to be like three years as seniors. Better serve notice, we have two great players there.”
ETSU defense held Furman to three points over the game’s first six minutes and to eight points over the first 11 minutes. Leading 32-19 at the half, the margin was nearly three points more as Bradford’s 3-point shot bounced around the rim before falling off at the buzzer.
The Bucs didn’t let it deter them, scoring the first four points of the second half. In a stretch of nearly nine minutes spanning halftime, the Paladins failed to score on back-to-back possessions.
ETSU pushed the lead out to 23 points (48-25) when the game was stopped for a media timeout with 12:40 to go. At the time, Furman had hit just 24.2 percent from the field and was just 1 of 17 behind the 3-point arc.
The Bucs also had a 15-4 advantage in points off turnovers, which again came from the defense.
“We were real active with our hands and we took the game to them,” Forbes said. “Great defense, you play before the catch. You don’t allow them to catch it and then react. I thought we took to them and we sped them up where they had to make plays off the dribble and we were in those gaps to strip and rip.”
ETSU outscored Furman 40-26 in the paint and had a slight 41-38 rebounding advantage. The Bucs led a host of other statistical categories including 13-5 assists, 9-3 blocks and 9-3 fast-break points. The Bucs led 37:40 of the 40 minutes and the Paladins only held the lead for 37 seconds when the score was just 3-2.
The Bucs had five dunks, including the last one by the high-flying David Burrell, whose hand appeared to be nearly three feet above the rim, leaving both his coach and ETSU teammates in awe.
“It was so much fun being able to watch guys just fly around, smiling, laughing and having fun. It’s beautiful, man,” Bradford said. “David’s play might have been the most athletic play I’ve ever seen.”
ETSU split with UNC Greensboro during the regular season with the Spartans ending the Bucs’ school-record 16-game winning streak with a 74-56 win back on Feb. 12. The Spartans also won the regular-season league title after the Bucs lost their final three games at home.
Forbes said the teams are similar, and the Spartans will be looking for revenge after losing to ETSU 79-74 in last year’s championship game.
“I think we’re the two best teams in the league and we’re going to play tomorrow night. That’s the way it should be,” Forbes said. “They remind me of my team last year. They’re playing with an edge and playing with a mission. Last year, they got really close and I promise you that’s all they’ve talked about.
“They’re so good defensively and they have a premier player in (Francis) Alonso. He’s so hard to guard. It should be a great night of basketball.”