In the final game of the 2017 Southern Conference Tournament, No. 3 East Tennessee State survived a scare from No. 1 UNC Greensboro, defeating the Spartans 79-74 in Monday night’s title game before a sellout crowd at the US Cellular Center.
The win gives ETSU its first Southern Conference Tournament title since 2004, and seventh league crown in the history of the program. It also will mark the 10th all-time NCAA Tournament appearance for the Bucs, and first since 2010, when the Bucs claimed the Atlantic Sun Tournament title.
The tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, TJ Cromer, led the Bucs with 23 points on 6-of-13 from the field and an 11-of-11 performance from the charity stripe. His perfection from the line was part of a flawless 19-for-19 effort as a team in the win.
“We had to use T.J. (Cromer) as a decoy tonight. He just came off a game where he had 41 points. Tonight, he had unbelievable patience. I knew it would come to him. I think the dunk to start the second half gave us some momentum, and then it was on,” said ETSU Head Coach Steve Forbes.
Cromer was one of the four Bucs in double figures in the championship win, with AJ Merriweather (13 pts), Hanner Mosquera-Perea (12 pts) and Tevin Glass (12 pts) rounding out the double-figure scorers.
Trailing 38-31 at the break, it looked look like ETSU might be headed for its third-straight loss to the Spartans this season, and a second-consecutive loss in conference championship game after falling to Chattanooga in the 2016 final. The Bucs saw the Spartans hit five first-half triples, with UNCG’s Francis Alonso scoring 16 of his game-high 28 points in the opening frame.
After shooting 46.2% in the opening half, the Bucs would catch fire in the second half, with Cromer scoring 14 of his 23 points in the second frame. It was part of a second half that saw the Bucs score 48 points and shoot a blistering 59.3% from the field.
The turning point in the contest came with 13:53 remaining. UNCG’s James Dickey finished off a lay-up to give UNCG a 50-48 lead, but Burrell answered with perhaps the biggest made three-pointer of the tournament from the right wing, giving the Bucs their first lead (51-50) since early in the game.
The Burrell three-pointer would spark an ETSU an 18-4 run, which would see the Bucs grow their lead to as much as 12 on a couple of occasions (66-54 with 7:39 left), with the latest coming with 4:57 remaining, at 70-58.
However, despite ETSU being on the verge of blowing the game open, UNCG would storm back to nearly provide an epic comeback over the game’s final five minutes. The Spartans closed the game on a 16-9 run, and had an excellent chance to tie the game late.
Following a pair of charity shots by Cromer, which gave the Bucs a 77-71 lead with 32 seconds remaining, UNCG’s Jordy Kuiper eventually connected on a triple following an offensive rebound by the Spartans, slicing ETSU’s lead in half (77-74) with 12 ticks left.
On the ensuing in-bounds pass, UNCG point guard Diante Baldwin stole the ball and took a couple of dribbles before finding a wide-open Alonso for a potential game-tying triple, however, the ball caromed in-and-out, and ETSU’s Merriweather grabbed the rebound and was fouled immediately with 2.5 seconds remaining. Merriweather knocked down both foul shots to clinch the 79-74 win and the NCAA Tournament berth for the Bucs.
The Spartans were led by a valiant effort from Alonso, who posted a game-high 28 points on 7-of-17 shooting from the field, including 5-for-12 from three-point land, and went 9-of-11 from the charity stripe. He was one of three Spartans in double figures, with RJ White adding 23 points and six boards, while Baldwin finished with 12 points and three assists.
In the Bucs’ semifinal and championship victories, ETSU registered a combined 20 blocks (11 vs Samford in the semis and nine vs UNCG in the championship), which was highlighted by a tournament record-tying six blocks from David Burrell in the win over UNCG. Burrell also posted five points off the bench for the Bucs.
Keying the Bucs performance in Monday night’s win was their play in the paint and on the glass. The Bucs out-rebounded the Spartans 31-27 in the game. In UNCG’s first two wins in the tournament, it had a combined 62-24 edge in points in the paint in wins over Wofford and The Citadel. However, the Bucs owned the paint in Monday night’s title game, flipping the script and out-scoring the Spartans 34-20 down low.
ETSU also shot the ball at a 52.8% clip, while holding the Spartans to 41% shooting for the game, including holding UNCG to just 37.3% shooting in the second half. That led to the Bucs out-scoring UNCG, 48-36, in the second frame.
ETSU improved to 27-7 on the season, while UNCG sees its nine-game winning streak come to an end, falling to 25-9 on the season. The Spartans will likely receive an invitation to the NIT Tournament against an opponent to be announced. The 27 wins for ETSU are tied for the second-most in the history.
For Head Coach Steve Forbes, it was his 51st win in two seasons and it was a tournament earlier in the season that helped the Bucs prepare for the gauntlet of the Southern Conference Tournament. A win in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament would tie Alan LeForce’s 52 wins in his first two campaigns as the ETSU head coach in 1990-91 and 1991-92.
The Bucs claimed the Sanford Showcase Tournament at the Pentagon in South Dakota over Thanksgiving weekend. The Bucs garnered three solid wins over UW-Milwaukee (86-62), South Dakota State (71-59) and Big West conference leader UC Irvine (72-66).
“I almost think we play better when we have less time to prepare for games, and that tournament earlier in the season certainly helped us tonight. I mean those were three quality wins up there at the Pentagon Tournament in South Dakota, and we had one against UC Irvine, who I think is winning their league. But we were able to put in six more plays for the Mercer game and eight for Samford and a few more for tonight, and the guys did a great job of making adjustments in a quick turnaround, and that’s the whole reason we scheduled that tournament was to prepare for the SoCon Tournament,” Forbes said.
ETSU will find out its fate on Sunday, awaiting the NCAA Selection Slow slated for 6 p.m. ET.