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ETSU hosts A-Sun foe North Florida in first vs. worst battle

NET News Service • Jan 4, 2009 at 12:00 AM

JOHNSON CITY — The Atlantic Sun Conference men’s basketball race shapes up as a 20-game marathon, but East Tennessee State is already clear of the field.

The Buccaneers find themselves as the league’s only unbeaten team after just three games. They outslugged Jacksonville 84-82 at home Saturday behind a career-high 39 points from senior guard Courtney Pigram.

That set up a battle between first and worst tonight at 7 o’clock when North Florida comes to town.

Though Ospreys (2-11, 0-3) have yet to win a league game, ETSU coach Murry Bartow was quick to sound the warning signal.

“We’d better be ready to play a great game and not look at their record,” Bartow said. “That’s the message.”

The Bucs (9-4, 3-0) are sending an early message around the conference. They won their first two games on the road, including a 19-point decision against a hot Mercer team, and then rallied to beat a talented bunch of Dolphins.

That non-conference stumble against Morehead State, which snapped a five-game winning streak, was pushed out of the picture.

“This was one that we needed,” said Pigram, who made 14 of 22 shots, including five 3-pointers, to surpass his previous scoring high by five points. “We knew they were going to be pumped up coming in here, and they fought hard at both ends of the court.”

Pigram was slowed by the flu for a couple of days, but it didn’t show as he led the Bucs back from an early 10-point deficit. Mike Smith came up big at the end, driving for a bank shot with 4.5 seconds left that broke the seventh tie.

The Bucs now boast three of the top eight scorers in the A-Sun.

Kevin Tiggs (21.0) and Pigram (20.5) are at the top of the list, and Mike Smith (13.8) is eighth. Pigram continues to lead in assists (4.85) and is fourth in steals (2.23).

ETSU also has reason for optimism about its young players inside.

Redshirt freshman Isiah Brown had 12 rebounds and eight points against Jacksonville, prompting Bartow to say that Brown “is going to be an all-conference player pretty quick.” Seth Coy, the 6-foot-11 freshman, also appeared to be in a better flow after missing seven games with a broken foot. He managed just three points and one rebound in the loss to Morehead State.

“I felt a lot more comfortable than I did against Morehead,” Coy said of Saturday night’s game. “I was a little tired at first ... but it didn’t last. I’m trying to work my way back into the lineup, getting my minutes.”

The Bucs should have too much firepower tonight for a former Division II team suffering serious growing pains.

North Florida was 3-26 a year ago, winning only once in the conference, and the Ospreys seem to have picked up where they left off. They lost their first seven games — a few of the blowout variety — before putting together wins over Furman and Palm Beach Atlantic. Three more losses have followed.

The Ospreys’ leading scorer is senior Cortez Riley, at 11.7 points per game.

They don’t have a rebounder among the top 20 in the league.

The ETSU women are also in action against North Florida as part of today’s A-Sun doubleheader at Memorial Center. The Lady Bucs (4-6, 2-1) and Ospreys (2-10, 1-2) tip off at 4:45 p.m.

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