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Pigram boosts Bucs to victory over Mercer

KELLY HODGE • Feb 24, 2007 at 10:00 AM

JOHNSON CITY - Brad Nuckles was lost to injury less than seven minutes into the contest, and Dequan Twilley never pulled off his warmups.

For a day, at least, those weren't major problems for the East Tennessee State men's basketball team. Courtney Pigram made sure of it.

The sophomore guard turned in a stat line for the ages Saturday at Memorial Center - 29 points, 18 assists, eight rebounds and four steals - as the Bucs raced past Mercer 112-89 to close out the regular season.

Pigram's assist total was just one off Mister Jennings' 16-year-old school record.

"I just had to pull out my point-guard skills and pick up the slack," said Pigram, who had 16 points and 10 assists in a free-flowing first half that ended with the Bucs in front 65-46. "This was a different kind of game than we usually play, and I just went with the flow. My teammates were running the floor and making shots, so I just tried to get them the ball."

The Atlantic Sun Conference's second-leading scorer still found time to launch 16 shots, making nine, in a captivating offensive show that saw the Bucs score their most points in 14 years. Pigram committed just three turnovers.

"What can you say about a guy that gets you 29 and 18?" said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. "He was great."

Pigram, a shooting guard, turned into the playmaker because Twilley was serving a one-game suspension for violating team rules, and Tayloe Taylor, the starting point guard, got in early foul trouble.

Things should be back to business as usual in the backcourt Thursday night when the top-seeded Bucs (22-8, 16-2) host No. 8 Stetson in the quarterfinals of the A-Sun tournament. The teams will tip off at 7 p.m..

Nuckles' status for that matchup, however, was thrown into doubt early in Saturday's contest.

A crowd of 5,452 had barely settled in after pregame senior day festivities when Nuckles, one of the team's three seniors, wheeled out of a scrum under the basket clutching his left arm. The initial diagnosis was a separated shoulder.

"One of their guys pulled for a rebound and it popped, and I pulled and it popped again," said Nuckles, who will undergo an MRI today. "The second pop hurt really bad. I was going to try to play through it, but I couldn't."

Bartow said he was encouraged by an initial report from head trainer Scott Brown.

"Scotty thought he'd be OK for the tournament, and he better be," Bartow said. "If we don't have Brad, we're in serious trouble. You can't sugarcoat it. I think you saw that tonight when we give up 89 points."

The Bucs had been allowing 65 points per game on average and living on defense, but this one was just a track meet from the start. In the end, five players had scored at least 20 points apiece.

Kenyona Swader and Mike Smith each had 24 for the Bucs, while James Florence, the A-Sun's leading scorer, finished with 27 and Ross Alacqua had 20 for the Bears.

It was a breakout game for Swader, the former juco forward who generally sees spot duty and had never scored more than nine at ETSU. This day he was an offensive wiz, going 6-of-9 on 3-pointers.

"My team was finding me and I was making open shots," said Swader, who also grabbed seven rebounds. "We needed some other guys to step up today, and I was one of those guys."

So was walk-on Nick Tuggle. Also an outgoing senior, he started the game and scored 13 points in 18 minutes of action. Previously, Tuggle had scored six points in two years.

"We see what Nick can do every day in practice," Bartow said. "Now everybody is going to be questioning me all week about why he doesn't get more time."

Eryk Thomas, the team's third senior, chipped in with 12 points for the Bucs.

The game was tight for most of the first half, with ETSU clinging to a 32-31 lead with 7:40 left. That's when Bartow was whistled for his first technical foul of the season for arguing a bit too passionately during a timeout.

The outburst seemed to light a fire under the Bucs, who went on a 20-3 run over the next three minutes. Swader and Smith scored eight apiece during the run.

"I don't like to get technicals, but sometimes you feel like you need to," Bartow said. "I don't know if it made an impact in the game, but after that we went on a heck of a run."

The Bucs shot 61 percent in the half and got assists on 18 of their 22 field goals. They finished the game with 29 assists and just nine turnovers.

Mercer got as close as 13 in the second half, at 93-80, but the Bucs refueled the offense and sped away down the stretch.

The Bears (13-16, 8-10) will be seeded fifth at the conference tournament and face No. 4 Lipscomb in the Thursday nightcap.

NOTES: The 112 points were the most ETSU has scored since a 117-91 victory at Oral Roberts in 1993. The school record is 125 points scored against Newberry in 1989.

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