And this time there was very little suspense.
Kevin Tiggs scored 13 of his 21 points in the first eight minutes as East Tennessee State took a commanding lead, and the Bucs cruised past Jacksonville 85-68 in the championship game of the Atlantic Sun Conference men’s basketball tournament Saturday night.
ETSU (23-10) earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. It will be the Bucs’ eighth trip to the NCAAs, their first since 2004.
“I’ve never felt like this before about the game,” ETSU senior guard Courtney Pigram said. “This just feels really good to finally get to the NCAA tournament. When I get there, me and the guys are going to perform.”
The Bucs’ so-called “Big Three” of Tiggs, Pigram and Mike Smith did their part in their most important victory of the season. Smith led the team with 22 points and 12 rebounds. Pigram, coming off a 30-point performance in the semifinals, finished with nine points and six assists. All three made the all-tournament team, and Tiggs was the MVP after scoring 79 points in three games.
“When you get to the tournament, you’re happy for a lot of people,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow, who will be making his third NCAA tournament appearance. “But I’m happy for the 10 players. I’ll coach other teams and we’ve got a lot of other people around our program, but I’m happy for the 10 guys.”
The Big Three had plenty of help. Micah Williams scored a career-high 16 points, while Isiah Brown added nine points, including three key baskets in the decisive first half.
“Micah’s a guy who has been up and down minute-wise,” Bartow said. “But tonight he got a lot of minutes and he made the most of them.”
Tommy Hubbard, who decided not to redshirt about three weeks ago, grabbed seven rebounds and defended the Dolphins’ only threat on this night, Ben Smith. Hubbard held Smith in check for a while, though he fouled out in the process.
Smith finished with 29 points, many of them after Hubbard had left.
Tiggs scored nine points in a 17-2 run that gave the Bucs an early 21-8 lead. It was the kind of start about which they wouldn’t have even dared to dream.
“We came back against teams with bigger lead, so I thought we could come back,” Jacksonville’s Marcus Allen said.
Beating the Dolphins to just about every loose ball and pressing to keep the pace to their liking, the Bucs continued to pour it on. And they did it in such impressive fashion that the only question remaining over the final 30 minutes was what would be the margin of victory.
“When we were up by 20, I was like ‘Wow,’” Tiggs said. “But then I said we just got to buckle down and keep it going because we didn’t want them to come back.”
As it turned out, ETSU led by as many as 30 in the second half and, even though it got a little ragged down the stretch when Jacksonville cut the lead to 14 with 1:25 left, the damage had been done.
“East Tennessee State had a good game,” said Jacksonville coach Cliff Warren, the A-Sun coach of the year. “I’m disappointed in our effort. We’ve played better than this in the past.”
After Tiggs’ hot start, he disappeared for a while. He picked up his third foul with 6:11 left in the first half and went to the bench for the rest of the half.
When Tiggs sat down, the Bucs were up by 14. They stretched the lead to 15 by halftime.
When the second half began, Tiggs was still sitting. By the time he got back into the game, he had missed 11 minutes. ETSU was up 54-30.
The Bucs will enter the NCAA tournament on a roll, having won five games in a row, all by double digits. The NCAA selections will be made a week from today.
“We’re a pretty good team and we can play with a lot of people,” Bartow said. “It all depends on matchups.”
Jacksonville (18-13) earned an automatic bid to the NIT by virtue of its regular-season championship.