ETSU clinches 1st NCAA berth since 2004

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—East Tennessee State proved it knows how to bounce back from a loss.

Mike Smith scored 22 points, and East Tennessee State clinched its first NCAA tournament berth since 2004 and eighth overall by routing Jacksonville 86-58 Saturday night to win the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament.

It was the Buccaneers’ fifth straight win since a Feb. 16 loss to Campbell— by an average of 20 points.

“We had a couple of team meetings. We didn’t want to lose anymore. … We wanted to play hard for them and try to send them out on a good note,” Smith said.

The Bucs (23-10) had not earned an NCAA berth since winning back-to-back titles in the Southern Conference, but they had to find a new league when the university dropped football. They advanced to this championship by beating Belmont, the A-Sun’s three-time champ that beat the Bucs for the league’s NCAA berth in 2007 and in 2008 in a semifinal with a controversial finish.

Coach Murry Bartow said he didn’t talk about last year’s tournament loss in which a technical foul allowed Belmont to pull out the win at the end.

“The mojo’s been good, everything’s been good, we’ve been winning,” Bartow said. “I think they came out today on a mission and just weren’t going to be denied. It was a good feeling to see them play so well.”

With the Lady Bucs having won the women’s title over Jacksonville earlier on the same floor, both are going to the NCAA tournament in the same year for the first time in school history.

Jacksonville (18-13) lost to Belmont a year ago in this game and failed again to make its first NCAA appearance since 1986 when the Dolphins played in the Sun Belt Conference. The regular season champs will at least play in their first postseason since the 1987 NIT.

“ETSU, Belmont they both came out and played harder than us in both games,” Dolphins guard Ben Smith said. “The factor was the shots.”

ETSU scored the first four points of the game and trailed only once before rolling up to a 30-point lead midway through the second half. Kevin Tiggs added 21 points, and Micah Williams had 16 for ETSU.

Ben Smith had 29 points for Jacksonville, which lost the 1970 national championship to UCLA and coach John Wooden. Evan Jefferson and Ayron Hardy each had 11.

“We talked about getting loose balls (and) rebounds. From the first couple plays, we didn’t box out, and they got offensive rebounds. ETSU set the tone,” Coach Cliff Warren said

The Dolphins were outrebounded 40-34.

These teams are among only 16 in the country with three 1,000-point scorers on the roster, and Tiggs and Mike Smith scored so well in the first half for ETSU that it didn’t matter that Courtney Pigram, the Atlantic Sun’s first 2,000-point scorer since 1984, didn’t make his first field goal until a 3-pointer to open the second half.

Pigram finished with nine but was happy to finish his career in the NCAA tournament.

“Me and the guys, we’re going to perform,” Pigram said.

Ben Smith, Lehmon Colbert and Marcus Allen—Jacksonville’s high-scoring trio—combined to go 4-of-14 from the floor in the first half. Colbert and Allen finished with two and five points apiece.

Travis Cohn’s 3-pointer from the corner gave Jacksonville the 6-4 lead before Tiggs answered with a layup, then put ETSU ahead to stay with a dunk that started a 17-2 run.

The league’s leading scorer averaging 21.5 points per game, Tiggs had 11 of the Buccaneers’ first 17 points, the last on a three-point play for a 17-6 lead. Jacksonville had four starters averaging in double figures but could not find the basket early, hitting just two of its first nine shots.

ETSU led 43-28 at halftime.

Jacksonville’s shooting struggles continued to start the second half as the Dolphins hit only one of their first five.

By then, the Bucs just kept building their lead with a highlight coming when Pigram lobbed the ball up near the basket for Tiggs to drop it in for a 60-36 lead with 12:02 to go.

With Ben Smith trying to shoot the Dolphins back into the game, he helped whittle away the lead. But the Bucs still got to dribble away most of the final seconds to start their celebration.

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 E. Tennessee St.
Mike Smith Mike Smith
6-15,  22 Pts
12 Rebs, 4 Assists
 Jacksonville
Ben Smith Ben Smith
9-19,  29 Pts
4 Rebs, 3 Assists

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Saturday, Mar 7