Jacksonville holds a one-game advantage over East Tennessee State and Belmont with five to play. For the Bucs (17-8, 11-4), a regular-season championship may hang in the balance tonight at Lipscomb (11-13, 7-8), a team they’ve beaten seven straight times but always one that puts up a good fight.
The Bucs rallied from 17 down in the second half earlier this season to defeat the Bisons 85-82 in overtime.
Now, with two straight losses, there is little margin for error for coach Murry Bartow’s team.
“If we win our last five, it’s all there for us,” said Bartow, who dropped back-to-back games to Stetson and Belmont. “Of course, you could say the same for Belmont and Jacksonville.”
The Bucs wrote another chapter in their lopsided history with the Bruins on Saturday night, watching an 11-point lead evaporate in the last eight minutes of a 76-73 loss. ETSU has now dropped eight of 10 games in the series since joining the A-Sun.
At this point, nothing that happens the rest of the way would surprise Belmont coach Rick Byrd, whose team had suffered its worst-ever beating in the conference last month in Johnson City.
“You see that all through the league this year,” Byrd said. “We beat Stetson by 30 here and lost down there. We beat Campbell by 30 here and should have lost down there. East Tennessee State beat us by 30 at their place and lost here.
“There’s not a team in the country that goes through these conference grinds and plays intellectually the way you think they should the whole way. ...
“You just don’t know how the last five games will play out for anybody.”
After tonight’s game, the Bucs play at USC Upstate and Campbell before returning home to close out the season against Kennesaw State and Mercer.
ETSU desperately needs a spark for the stretch run, and the karma may not be the best tonight at Allen Arena. The last time the Bucs played there, in the A-Sun semifinals last March, Belmont came from behind for a 69-65 win.
The major concern for the Bucs tonight will be Adnan Hodzic, Lipscomb’s 245-pound sophomore from Bosnia, who muscled his way for 30 points on 14-of-16 shooting in the first game.
“We obviously had no answer for Hodzic; he did whatever he wanted,” Bartow said. “We were fortunate to get the game to overtime and fortunate to win.”
Tipoff tonight is set for 8 p.m.