Bearcats escape Bucs

By Wes Holtsclaw

   COLUMBUS, Ohio -- They say history has a way of repeating itself.
   That was the last thing the East Tennessee State Buccaneers wanted out of their first-round matchup against the Cincinnati Bearcats.
   However, it became true.
   After fighting through a number of obstacles to take the lead, the Bucs were forced to defend against a tie game late.
   Cincinnati's Tony Bobbitt, the top bench player in the country, pulled a trey with 17 seconds left and the Bucs fell short on three inside attempts to give the fourth-seeded Bearcats an 80-77 victory in front of 19,588 in attendance at the Nationwide Arena.
   ETSU lost by three last season to Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA tourney, in Tampa.
   "They are a good, well-coached team and we have a lot of respect for (Cincinnati coach) Bob (Huggins)," said ETSU head coach Murry Bartow. "We're a very disappointed team, and in this tournament, there's no consolation. We really felt we could come in here and win."
   The Bearcats face fifth-seeded and Big Ten regular season champion Illinois at 2:30 today in the second round of the Atlanta region bracket at Columbus.
   "We're a pretty dejected bunch," Bartow said. "It's been a great year for us. But we've been talking all year about winning games in this tournament."
   The Bucs rode the shoulders of sophomore point guard Tim Smith, who again put on a show in front of a national audience.
   Smith dropped in a game-high 26 points, and had five rebounds, five assists and four steals, but couldn't make the last shot count.
   ETSU drew up a play after calling a timeout with 13 seconds left. Smith tried to grab a quick deuce to cut it to one and give the Bucs a chance to win, but it didn't work in his favor.
   Smith missed a deuce, followed by missed attempts from seniors Zakee Wadood and Jerald Fields, giving the Bearcats the ball with close to a second remaining to seal the deal.
   "We were going for the two-point shot," Smith said. "Zakee set a good screen and got open. The lane was open too, I just missed it."
   "We did a lot of different things, but obviously, it wasn't enough," said Bartow. "It's a three-point game. I told them if they give us a two, then we'll cut it to one and see what we do."
   "When you've got a fast PG like we have, it doesn't take long to get down the floor," he said. "I just went with my gut and did what I had to do as a coach."
   The Bucs fought through an 11-0 opening deficit to cut it to four. Cincinnati again built a lead by as much as 13, before the Bucs stepped up to slice it down.
   Smith hit a trey at the horn to end the first half, making it a five-point game in favor of the Bearcats.
   ETSU went on a big 14-2 run of its own in the second half before taking the lead on a Smith lay-in.
   The teams swapped it around before the Bucs tied it back up with under three minutes to go.
   Cincinnati ran the clock down and got the help of rebounds and an out-of-bounds call, which appeared to go off a Bearcat player, to set up the eventual winning shot.
   "They fought hard and when we got down early, there was no panic because we'd been down a lot this year," said Bartow.
   Bobbitt and teammate, senior guard Fields Williams, each hit five treys in the game. Williams led Cincinnati with 19 points, while Bobbitt and Eric Hicks added 15 and 14, respectively.
   It was an end to the Buccaneer careers of Jerald Fields, who scored 19, and Zakee Wadood, 17.
   "I could go on and on about them," added the Buccaneer coach. "Both are great players, but they're really good people. They had a very big year last year, but we had a lot of goals and one of them was this tournament. They've made it very easy on me."
   Wadood grabbed 14 rebounds and battled through his first five shots being blocked by the Bearcats.
   "Once we got adjusted to their athleticism, we really were able to attack them," said Zakee.
   Fields played with a lot of heart and determination, leading the Bucs with some crucial inside buckets throughout the course of the game.
   The emotion was felt in the stands, as the majority of the crowd in attendance swung in favor of the Bucs.
   "It was the same thing last year in Tampa," said Fields. "Everybody roots for the underdog. Just today, the underdog didn't get the win."
   Cincinnati had a much deeper bench, with 10 players doing most of the work. Jason Maxiell and Nick Williams also played a big role for the unit with nine points each.
   ETSU played seven guys throughout the game, with Ben Rhoda, James Anthony, Travis Strong and Brad Nuckles also contributing to the unit's scoring efforts.
   Said Bartow: "I just can't say enough about these guys. They have huge hearts. We're going to miss Jerald and Zakee next year. It was a great game. They just did a few more things in the end to pull it out."
   The Bucs finish the season at 27-6 and will now work on picking up some new players in the post-season.
   ETSU will play one more season in the Southern Conference before making the transition into the Atlantic Sun.