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Back atop A-Sun, ETSU aims to keep rolling against Stetson

NET News Service • Feb 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM

JOHNSON CITY — Now that the East Tennessee State men have regained first place in the Atlantic Sun Conference basketball standings, they have some work left to do to stay there.

A little more than a week ago, the Buccaneers fell out of first with an overtime loss at Jacksonville, which hasn’t won since. The opportunity presented by the Dolphins’ two-game skid wasn’t lost on ETSU, which has responded with a pair of victories.

“It feels real good, but we have to hold it down this time,” Bucs guard Courtney Pigram said. “You don’t get too many chances.”

ETSU (17-6, 11-2) is closing in on its third 20-win season in coach Murry Bartow’s six years at the school. The Bucs are coming off a 102-78 victory over Florida Gulf Coast that avenged one of their two conference losses.

Stetson (10-12, 7-7), which swept Belmont and Lipscomb a week ago, suffered a 54-53 loss at USC-Upstate on Saturday.

“They’re coming off a tough loss and we’re coming off a good win, and that does mean something psychologically,” Bartow said. “It’s always good when you’re rolling and guys are feeling good about themselves. Hopefully we can keep it rolling.”

One ETSU player who certainly has it rolling is Mike Smith. The 6-foot-6 junior has averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds in his past five outings, including three consecutive double-doubles.

Smith has flourished after making a position change when freshman point guard Adam Sollazzo was moved back into the starting lineup, switching Pigram back to his natural shooting guard spot.

The Bucs keep Kevin Tiggs at small forward when he’s on the floor, so Smith has moved from shooting guard to power forward, a seemingly difficult transition he’s made look easy.

“He’s just playing well,” Bartow said. “His matchups are different. The people that are guarding him are different. Any time there’s a loose ball or a scramble for the ball, we know as a coaching staff who’s going come up with the ball. He’s just a ferocious, tough kid.”

After scoring almost exclusively inside on a two-game trip to Florida a week ago, Smith stepped outside against Florida Gulf Coast, making 4 of 8 from 3-point range.

“I was just running in transition, and CP and Adam were finding me,” Smith said. “I was just shooting and they were falling.”

ETSU beat Stetson 73-67 last month, and the Bucs lead the series 6-3.

“Since we’ve been in the Atlantic Sun, Stetson’s always given us some trouble,” Bartow said. “The games have been close. The games have been ugly. We’ve lost some of them.”

Garfield Blair, a 6-5 senior, leads the Hatters in scoring at 16.6 points a game.

Tipoff at Memorial Center is 7 p.m.

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