NASHVILLE - The East Tennessee State men's basketball team owns a two-game lead in the Atlantic Sun Conference and already has beaten everybody left on its schedule.
Coach Murry Bartow likes the position but isn't sure what it's worth as the Bucs make their way through the league for the second time. He remembers his team falling from first to fifth in the final two weeks a year ago.
"It's really way too early to start adding that stuff up, but I'm glad to be sitting where we are," Bartow said Thursday night after his team avenged its only conference loss with an 80-70 overtime victory at Belmont. "We got at least one win here, and we just need to stay focused and keep getting better."
The Bucs (15-7, 9-1) put a little breathing room between themselves and the defending champions in a rousing matchup at the Curb Center. It was ETSU's first victory over the Bruins since joining the A-Sun last year.
Now the Bucs will ride a seven-game winning streak into another hostile environment today at Lipscomb (13-8, 7-3). The Bisons claimed a share of second place Thursday night by defeating Kennesaw State - their 18th straight victory at Allen Arena - and are certainly capable of pressing the Bucs right down to the end.
"This is our toughest road trip," said Bucs forward Eryk Thomas. "A sweep here would be huge."
Overtime thrillers have been a recurring theme for ETSU this season, beginning with its win over Chattanooga in mid-November.
The Bucs lost 75-74 in OT to Belmont on Jan. 2, then two nights later beat Lipscomb 75-72 in overtime when freshman Dequan Twilley hit a long 3-pointer with less than a second left.
"That felt good," said Twilley, who helped nail down the win Thursday night with four free throws in the last 45 seconds. "We've been a pretty good team in overtime. It's always like a dogfight, and the team that plays the hardest wins."
Bartow isn't sure what the secret is, other than being mentally tough when it counts the most.
"As a coach, you just try to be calm when you have to go to overtime," he said. "With this team, you let the players know we've been there before and been successful. Usually the team that jumps out quick wins."
The Bucs did just that against Belmont, scoring the first seven points in the extra period. The Bruins, who had rallied from 17 down late in the first half, couldn't muster another challenge.
Thomas scored five of his 16 points in the overtime. The 6-foot-6 senior also finished with a career-high 19 rebounds and was typically at the heart of ETSU's defensive effort.
"There's no question in my mind that Eryk is the best defender in the league," Bartow noted, "and now he's rebounding and scoring, too."
Brad Nuckles and Andrew Reed were also big inside. Nuckles collected his fifth straight double-double, with 16 points and 12 rebounds, while Reed scored 10 and blocked four shots.
Courtney Pigram led the Bucs with 18 points.
But more than anything else, it was defense that carried the Bucs.
They limited the Bruins to 38 percent shooting, including 5-of-24 from 3-point range. Josh Goodwin, Belmont's senior sharpshooter, was held scoreless. Andy Wicke, the leading 3-point shooter in the conference, was 0-for-7 from long range.
"Two numbers jump out," Bartow said. "We really dominated the glass (46-35) and we held Belmont, a really good offensive team, to 38 percent shooting."
The Bucs are now 5-0 in conference road games but will likely have their hands full today at Lipscomb. Eddie Ard, the 6-5 junior, is perhaps the best all-around player in the A-Sun, and senior guard Brian Fisk is also an all-conference performer.
"They're a much different type of team than Belmont," Bartow said. "Lipscomb is more athletic, they defend different, their offense is different. They're a very good team."
Ard led the Bisons with 24 points in the earlier meeting with ETSU, and Fisk scored 18.
Tipoff is set for 5 p.m.