Bucs returning to NCAA tourney

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com

   NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Walking off the court with his fists clinched in the air, it appeared Murry Bartow knew it would be this way.
   The first year East Tennessee State coach came into a solid conference championship program, gave it a few more tweaks and polished its dancing shoes...along a season of comeback and down-to-the-wire wins.
   In the Southern Conference tournament final against the UT Chattanooga Moccasins, the Buccaneers took a lead in the middle of the first half and kept its sights on the 64-team rumble.
   ETSU held off a pair of late Mocs rallies, which saw Chattanooga cut the lead to five with eight minutes to go and six with three left, and sealed their ticket to the NCAA Tournament with a 78-62 victory at the North Charleston Coliseum.
   "It's a very unusual group of guys," said Bartow. "They have been incredibly level headed all year. They haven't got excited all year and we've kind of been looking forward to (the NCAA tournament)."
   The Bucs led by as much as 16 in the second half of the game before Chattanooga went on a 12-2 run with the momentum of the game.
   Tim Smith hit a bobbly trey as a shot clock expired during one of the teams final series of offense, setting up a closing offensive explosion in front of a largly Buc-based crowd.
   "The clock was winding down and Jerald said let it go," said Smith. "I knew it was going in. That's why I did the Michael Jordan back-up."
   Former ETSU assistant and current Chattanooga coach Jeff Lebo couldn't say enough about the tournament MVP (Smith), who tallied a game-high 25 points in the final game.
   "It's a six-point game and we're playing the best defense we have all night," said Lebo. "Timmy Smith just makes a phenomenal lucky play with one second on the shot clock, just bobbling and throwing it up."
   "He's a great player and there's no doubt that he's one of the best players in the country, no matter what level you're talking about."
   Chattanooga finished the game without senior leader Ashley Champion, who went down with a sprained ankle after making the game's first bucket.
   They got a balanced night of offense, led by Alphonso Pugh, which kept ETSU from putting it away early.
   However, it was clearly the Bucs' afternoon.
   Chattanooga led periodically until the 13:26 mark, after which a Zakee Wadood lay-in gave ETSU the lead they would not relinquish.
   Wadood and Fields were a force inside early, with Chattanooga's main weapon out, helping fight towards an eight-point, 43-35, halftime lead.
   Ben Rhoda and Brad Nuckles shone in spots early in the second half, while freshman Travis Strong, who started in place of an injured James Anthony, kept things calm defensively.
   However, a trio of treys from Bryan Richardson, with inside buckets from Ray Trowell and Mindaugas Katelynas got Chattanooga within striking distance.
   After Smith's trey, Fields dropped a big deuce, Wadood came up with a trey and Smith had a pair to seal the 16-point win.
   The squad finished with five guys in double digits after the championship game, placing four, including Smith, on the All-Tournament unit.
   Wadood and Fields, along with Strong made the 10-man team.
   Wadood, stepping up after a slow tournament, had 14 points and eight boards Saturday, while Fields tallied eight points with his eight boards.
   Strong dropped 11 points while Ben Rhoda and Brad Nuckles (eight boards) tallied 10 apiece.
   "They've got a really great team," said Lebo. "I was fortunate to be on the staff of some great East Tennessee State teams and they're as good as those teams. We lost to them three times and had a chance to beat them at our place."
   "I've been around a long time, even though I'm young, in the game of basketball and I would not want to play them if I'm a big SEC, ACC or Big Ten school in the first round," he said. "I would not want that. They could certainly make some noise in this tournament. They were the best team in the (SoCon) tournament no doubt."
   Bartow left the press podium with a seldomly seen smile.
   "We've done this all year. When games get tight, somebody steps up and makes a play," said the coach. "We've been in so many close games and these guys never cease to amaze me. They make plays at critical points in the game when they have to."
   "I can't say enough about them. It's been a joy for me personally to be around them this year."