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East Tennessee State makes early statement by putting scare into Kansas

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Steve Forbes doesn’t want moral victories, but his team showed why they’re the toast of the SoCon in a high-pressure road loss.

East Tennessee State v Kansas Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Before Kansas tipped with East Tennessee State on Tuesday night, the last action at Allen Fieldhouse had made waves nationally, and not in a conventional sense. Four days prior, Monmouth’s George Papas ripped the ball from Kansas guard Tristan Enaruna as he dribbled out the clock in the final seconds of a game the Jayhawks led by 55 points. Papas then raced down the floor and dunked himself into his very own viral 15-minutes of fame.

There would be no infamous — or depending on your perspective, famous — closing seconds dunk Tuesday night. There also wouldn’t be another 50-point wipe out handed down by the No. 4 Jayhawks. In their biggest test to date in a season loaded with high expectations, the Bucs put a scare into the Big 12 power and showed why they may well make national waves of the conventional Cinderella kind in March.

Another Kansas blowout, however, seemed on the table early.

The Jayhawks had built an 18-point lead midway the first half through a flurry of transition baskets; all told, Bill Self called the best 10 minutes his team had played on the young season. Throughout the run, ETSU head coach Steve Forbes, with arms crossed, craned his neck to check the time and score on Allen Fieldhouse’s jumbotron. On the court, his team was having to crane even harder to get the ball into the basket, as a number of good looks kept rimming out.

With the game on the cusp of falling into no man’s land for ETSU, junior wing Bo Hodges began playing downhill, and scored six points on three baskets at the rim in under a minute. Hodges mini-run brought ETSU to within striking distance — 12 points — at the break. He wasn’t done.

“In the first half we were getting shots and just not knocking them down,” Hodges said after the game. “In the second half I knew we needed a spark, so I saw a couple go in and I thought I could be that spark. We just needed a spark.”

He would finish with 22 points, and jolted the Bucs back into the game. Aided by forcing Kansas into nine second half turnovers, ETSU was able to cut the Jayhawks lead to just five with 5:55 left. That brought Allen Fieldhouse to life, as its patented jet engine atmosphere kicked into gear, especially as Udoka Azubuike and the Jayhawks dominance around the basket (54 points in the paint) kept the ETSU upset bid at bay in what was ultimately a 75-63 win.

But the second half run — with contributions from up and down the roster — forced the old building to erupt in what may otherwise have been a lackadaisical non-conference finish in Lawrence.

Unsurprisingly, pushing the Jayhawks wasn’t enough for Forbes.

The fifth-year coach said his team didn’t come for a moral victory but was proud of how the Bucs lived up to their motto — gritty, grimy, tough and together — after the slow start. And he said he’d seen teams, like when he was an assistant at Tennessee, wilt under Allen Fieldhouse’s barrage of noise and pressure. His current team didn’t surrender to that well-worn script.

“I thought in the second half we loosened them up a little,” Forbes said. “We were rolling harder, putting pressure on the rim. And getting some open shots, and that’s what we envisioned. In the first half we got sped up and tried to make plays by ourselves. That’s not who were. We share the ball. And you saw what happened in the second half where we started skipping [the ball] — one more [pass], one more [pass] and wide open shot.”

Hodges (17.0 PPG, 6.8 RPG) has played starring role so far this season, but it’s the Bucs’ array of offensive threats that can pounce on those wide open shots that make them a dangerous team yet again in the SoCon.

Forbes has yet to have a team win less than 24 games in his ETSU tenure, and his best version to date — the 27-win team that went to the NCAA Tournament in 2017 — was fueled by a disruptive defense. Last season, the Bucs had their best offensive year under Forbes, with the 67th-most efficient offense in the country per KenPom, all while playing in a historically strong SoCon. This year’s version may be able to improve on that because of its depth, especially in the backcourt.

“I thought we played a really good team,” Self said. “I really like [ETSU], they’re going to be really good. They’re veterans and they can stretch it and they made some hard shots late to get back in it.”

Various players took turns making those hard shots in ETSU’s comeback.

After a game in which he scored 13 points to help the Bucs stave off an upset-minded team, senior guard Tray Boyd hitting two threes midway through the second half. There was also junior Patrick Good, a third team all-SoCon guard coming off offseason hip surgery, who shook off a rough shooting start to hit two three’s late in the second half to counter a pair of arena-shaking dunks from Azubuike.

And with starting senior point guard Isaiah Tisdale struggling (one point, 0-3 FG), sophomore preseason first team all-SoCon guard Daivien Williamson pitched in a productive night (25 minutes, 10 points, four assists) against the Jayhawks’ perimeter length.

Williamson talked to the Kingsport Times-News about the team’s depth before the season.

“I like this team,” Williamson said. “We’re deep. I mean we have players coming off the bench that can start anywhere else in this conference. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be exciting. I love how we play. I love how we get up and down. I think we’re real competitive and I like that.”

And the Bucs are not lacking talent down low.

First-team all-league forward Jeromy Rodriguez had his hands full bodying Azubuike for much of the night. He still managed 10 rebounds, and lines up as one of the SoCon’s best rebounders and low-post threats. Seven-foot senior Lucas N’Guessan also oozes potential in his final year, as the skilled Oklahoma State transfer hit the first three of his career against the Jayhawks, and scored on nifty moves around the basket several times.

The team effort left Self impressed, and he let the Bucs know it.

“He was just saying we’re a good team, we fight until the end. We’re tough,” Boyd said when asked about his exchange with the Hall of Fame coach.

ETSU leaves Lawrence with a slate of games in which they’ll likely be favored on the horizon, including, presumably, road trips to Little Rock and North Dakota State. After one final power conference test on Dec. 18 at LSU, they’ll roll into SoCon play where that toughness will need to show up again, likely on a nightly basis.

Despite being tabbed as the league favorites, the SoCon presents a challenging slate. It may not reach the heights of last season, when Wofford, UNC Greensboro, Furman and ETSU finished in the KenPom top 100, but looks solid yet again. The Paladins are off to an impressive start, the Spartans punched Kansas themselves with a quality effort in Lawrence and Western Carolina looks rejuvenated in Mark Prosser’s second season after pushing Florida State last weekend.

The bright lights that come with playing a top-five team in one of the sport’s most historic buildings may not shine again on ETSU until a possible trip to the NCAA Tournament in March. To get there, Boyd said the team can’t lose focus on a nightly basis, even when there’s not a marquee opponent on the other side.

“We can’t play down to our competition, we have to set the tone, every night no matter who we play we need to let them know we can play with the best,” Boyd said. “We need to make statements every night.”

It didn’t come in the upset win they craved, but the Bucs made that first statement Tuesday night.