As the final buzzer sounded in the Southern Conference title game, ETSU players dog piled on the court as the confetti fell inside the U.S. Cellular Arena.
The Bucs won the SoCon Conference championship and locked their place in the NCAA Tournament with a 79-74 victory over University of North Carolina- Greensboro.
It wasn’t a sure thing, as ETSU trailed most of the first half and took a 7 point deficit into the locker room at halftime, 38-31. The UNCG perimeter defenders didn’t allow the Bucs one first half 3 pointer.
Meanwhile, UNCG guard Francisco Alonso and forward RJ White continued right where they left off against the Bucs in the two regular season games. Alonso had 16 points and White had 12 in the first half.
The Bucs came out with a different energy in the second half, ramping up the pace on a 12-8 run up until the first media timeout. Then just minutes later, ETSU regained the lead at 51-50 on forward David Burrell’s 3-pointer. It was the first 3-pointer of the game for ETSU.
Burrell provided a spark off the bench for the Bucs. After the 3-pointer, Burrell might as well given the Dikembe Mutumbo finger to any UNCG player trying to score at the rim the rest of the game. He recorded 6 second half blocks for the Bucs.
ETSU guard TJ Cromer followed up his 41 point performance on Sunday night with a 23 point performance in the title game. Guard AJ Merriweather, who dealt with foul trouble in the first half, went 5-5 from the field and scored 13 points along with 4 rebounds.
Forwards Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Tevin Glass also played a huge part, combining for 24 points and 13 rebounds on 10-16 shooting.
ETSU stretched out the lead to 12 in the second half, but UNCG never folded. With 4:57 remaining and the help of full court pressure, the Spartans began a 16-7 run and cut the ETSU lead to 3 with 12 seconds remaining.
On the following inbounds play, AJ Merriweather caught the inbounds pass, but then threw the ball away to UNCG guard Diante Baldwin. Baldwin found Alonso wide open for a 3-pointer, but the shot rimmed out. Merriweather redeemed himself with a rebound.
Alonso finished with 28 points, but he could only wonder what could have been 31 and a chance to send the game to overtime. He hung his head in disappointment, as Merriweather sunk both free throws after getting fouled to seal the conference championship for ETSU.
With the win, ETSU secured an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The team will likely be seeded either 13 or 14 in their first game. Who the Bucs play will be determined Selection Sunday on March 12.
The conference title is the 10th in ETSU history. It is the first since 2010. ETSU has an overall record of 2-10 in the NCAA Tournament.