JOHNSON CITY, TENN. - The game had that championship feel. A crowd of 6,149 packed into Freedom Hall to take in what was another classic in the SoCon this season.
Having grown up watching SoCon basketball in the early 90s, it reminded me of the days when regular-season games and league rivalries were something special. In many ways, Wednesday night’s game between East Tennessee State and Furman was evidence of a SoCon renaissance that has been brewing the past few seasons.
It’s certainly been aided by the return of ETSU, now in its third season back in the SoCon following an 11-year stint in the Atlantic Sun. This apparently did not cause fans in and around the Tri-Cities to lose their hunger for basketball.
The Furman game offered ETSU fans an opportunity to pack the gym for a league game with plenty on the line. Though the Bucs still have two games remaining before the league tournament, the 93-81 overtime win gave them the inside track toward the program’s first SoCon regular-season title since 2003-04.
What played out was a classic.
TJ Cromer was part of a shooting display that saw the Bucs connect on 60.8 percent (31-of-51) of their shots from the field. The allowed them to out-score Furman 19-7 in overtime.
Cromer saved his best for last on senior night. He scored a career-high 32 points on 11-of-17 shooting from the field, including 5-for-9 from three, and was a perfect 5-for-5 from the foul stripe.
Cromer was joined in double figures by Tevin Glass (17 pts), David Burrell (12 pts) and Desonta Bradford (11 pts). Glass also added an impressive 11 rebounds to record a double-double. His 11 rebounds were just one off his career-best 12 boards, which he recorded against Chattanooga in a Jan. 28 win.
“It’s great to be a part of a game like that. It’s what you play for and prepare for and I have to give thanks to our strength and conditioning program for preparing us for games like tonight,” Cromer said.
As big as Cromer’s night was, timely shooting by another senior - AJ Merriweather - was just as important, as he had a pair of triples at crucial junctures..
For Merriweather, it was an especially rewarding senior right. A player who has battled plenty of adversity due to injuries in his career came up with two huge shots when his team desperately needed it. His second triple in overtime might have been the biggest shot of the night for the Bucs.
Merriweather had to work hard to become a player that could deliver like that.
“I wasn’t a very good perimeter shooter in the past and I really worked on that this summer, and I am blessed to able to play for this program and with this group of guys,” Merriweather said.
The game’s atmosphere and quality of play was indicative of what has been a great regular season in the SoCon.
The Bucs and their fans made the program’s previous on-campus home - the Memorial Center - one of the most intimidating SoCon venues during the late 80s and early 90s. It was during this time that ETSU rose as high as No. 10 in the national polls, and beat teams like NC State and Southern Miss inside the dome.
Wednesday’s classic rekindled memories of some of those days when large SoCon crowds watched high quality basketball. It also showed that March is going to special in Asheville for the league tournament once again.