The East Tennessee State men’s basketball team saw its hold on first place slip away Monday night after Stetson ground out a 64-63 victory at Memorial Center.
Though the Buccaneers (17-7, 11-3) never led, they could have won it if Courtney Pigram’s wide-open bank shot from about 8 feet wasn’t long at the final horn. Instead, they found themselves again tied with Belmont and Jacksonville in the loss column heading into a weekend trip to Nashville.
They’ll play at Belmont on Saturday night and at Lipscomb on Monday night.
The loss to the Hatters was the Bucs’ first at home in the conference, and it could prove costly in the quest for a bye in the tournament — a fact that registered clearly on coach Murry Bartow’s face.
“It’s a tough loss for us,” Bartow said. “You let a game at home slip through your fingers, it’s tough. There’s no way to sugarcoat this. You have to win at home if you’re going to win the league.”
The Bucs found themselves playing catch-up the whole way against an inspired Stetson team they had outscrapped 73-67 back on Jan. 10.
Last week, the Hatters (11-12, 8-7) knocked off Belmont then turned around and lost to South Carolina Upstate, which had upset Jacksonville after a miserable effort itself at North Florida. Suddenly everyone in the league seems vulnerable, or dangerous.
Stetson came out firing from the perimeter against the Bucs and built a 26-11 advantage midway through the first half. The Hatters made 10 3-pointers in the half and took a 41-33 lead to the locker room.
Kevin Tiggs and Pigram kept the Bucs within sight by combining for all but six of their points in the first half. Pigram then fell silent, adding just three more in the second half on 1-for-9 shooting.
The miss at the end, where he pulled up off the dribble and was all alone left of the basket, was typical of his night. The ball was high and long off the glass.
“Courtney would usually make seven or eight out of 10 on those,” Bartow said. “We fought hard the last four or five minutes but just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Pigram finished with 17 points. Tiggs led all scorers, with 24, and was all the Bucs had in the way of offense down the stretch. No one else on the team reached double figures.
ETSU’s Mike Smith fouled out on a charge with 8:18 left, leaving with eight points and seven rebounds. Smith was trying to notch his third straight double-double.
The Hatters survived despite hitting just one free throw in the final 5:22.
“We had foul trouble and some crazy lineups out there,” said Stetson coach Derek Waugh. “Our defensive effort was really good, and our rebounding was good. We just kind of held on at the end.”
Mark Lohuis provided the Hatters with an unexpected lift, scoring 13 points, including four 3-pointers, and seven rebounds. The junior guard was averaging 4.3 points and 3.0 boards per game coming in.
Garfield Blair and Kris Thomas added 10 points apiece. Blair, the team’s best player, picked up his fourth foul with more than 13 minutes left and never really found an offensive flow.
But this was not a night for one. The Bucs continually got the ball on the rim but couldn’t get it to go down. They got to the foul line 29 times (to 11 for Stetson) but made only 18 tosses.
“Stetson just beat Belmont and just beat Lipscomb,” Bartow said. “They always give us trouble.”