Heavy shades of '03 in ETSU  tourney effort

By Wes Holtsclaw

   NORTH CHARLESTON, SC -- This year's Southern Conference tournament oddly resembled the 2003 showcase.
   In addition to the East Tennessee State Buccaneers again topping Chattanooga in the finale, guard Tim Smith regained the national spotlight, a freshman (Travis Strong) rose to the occasion and the inside duo of Jerald Fields and Zakee Wadood was a force to be reckoned with.
   The only thing that was different for the Bucs, aside from a much larger fan contingency and a new coach, was the bullseye that has been placed on their team all season long.
   "It means a lot," said Wadood. "Knowing everybody was giving us their best game night in and night out, we took their best shot and won almost every game anyways."
   "It makes this one special. And for me and Jerald, you couldn't script it any better."
   Many people across the country and in the conference questioned the capability for this ETSU squad after last year's run to the NCAA tournament.
   (Former ETSU head coach) Ed DeChellis parted ways for Penn State and there was a concern about the next person to take the East Tennessee State job.
   Luckily, Murry Bartow stepped up to the plate and succeeded.
   "When I took the job, I watched every game last year on tape and I tried to see the strengths and weaknesses of each player and what they were doing," said Bartow, who made a few minor adjustments to improve the overall aspect of the team.
   "I thought the best advice I received was not to tinker with too much of what we do. We lost three seniors off last year's team, but the core returned."
   The team came together before the season to prove a point.
   "Everybody thought it was a fluke last year, so we had to come out and make a statement and let them know we were the best team," said Smith.
   It took a lot of hard work, but this year's East Tennessee State team has earned the right to chisel its name on the list of Southern Conference dynasties with another trip to the Big Dance.
   "I really tried to keep as much continuity of this team," Bartow said. "For me, personally, I was just happy to be in it. I feel fortunate to be in it, but I'm happy for the guys. They are an incredibly good bunch."
   After his second free throw in the championship game, Smith did something not many sophomore point guards across the country have done: he scored his 1,000th point.
   "I'm happy about the 1,000 point mark," said Smith, who also claimed the conference tournament MVP. "I'm not a 'what if' kind of guy, I don't want to look back and wish I had done something, so I just want to keep it moving and improve each year."
   The point guard has become a legend in his own right, much like Keith 'Mister' Jennings of the Les Robinson and Alan LeForce Buc squads of the late '80s and early '90s.
   He has become a potent offensive weapon when opposing teams key on Wadood and Fields among others.
   "When he's got the shot, we want him to take it," said Bartow. "We want him to run with it and we're our best in transition."
   Smith scored just under 500 points as a freshman.
   During ETSU's semi-final game against the Davidson Wildcats, junior James Anthony, who has been a big outside weapon this season, went down with a shoulder injury.
   Anthony didn't see any action in Saturday's game and was replaced with freshman Travis Strong, who helped key the squad's 96-84 victory on Friday with a career-high 17 points including five treys and a monster slam.
   The Bucs had three technical fouls in the Davidson game, with Smith, Wadood and Fields each grabbing four late as the Cats closed in.
   The unit stepped up their defense late after Davidson made it a six-point game with four minutes to go. The Cats got no closer.
   Smith tallied 29 points with nine assists, six boards and five steals in that contest. Fields had 15 points and nine boards.
   Davidson was led by Ian Johnson's 21 points and eight boards, while Matt McKillop was a nuisance from the three-point line with 21 points including five behind the arch.
   Fans of the East Tennessee State University men's basketball team are invited to a special "welcome home" rally today at Brooks Gym on the ETSU campus.
   Fresh off their second straight victory in the Southern Conference tournament championship, the Bucs will arrive at Brooks Gym around 4 p.m., and fans are encouraged to celebrate the Bucs' back-to-back championship with the team.
   ETSU memorabilia and merchandise will be made available, and the team will sign autographs.