RECAP: Chattanooga Holds off East Tennessee State to Win Southern Conference Title

Justin Tuoyo (#2) and the Chattanooga Mocs fought their way past the East Tennessee State Buccaneers on Monday night, 73-67, to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. (Photos: Times Free Press)
Justin Tuoyo (#2) and the Chattanooga Mocs fought their way past the East Tennessee State Buccaneers on Monday night, 73-67, to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. (Photos: Times Free Press)

So far in the 2016 post-season, the top seeds haven’t fared well in the conference tournaments. On Monday night, the Chattanooga Mocs were out to make sure the same thing didn’t happen to them.

The top seed in the Southern Conference was the top team in the conference all season long, and while they only finished a game ahead of their opponent in the tournament final, there wasn’t any doubt as to who the team to beat was.

Chattanooga was matched up against the East Tennessee State Buccaneers in the conference final, and fans in Asheville, NC were excited to see the top two teams in the SoCon meet once more. The Buccaneers were a trendy pick to be in the finals this season, and they lived up to the hype.

Both teams struggled out of the gate, but the Mocs took a sizeable lead into the locker room after the opening 20 minutes. The Buccaneers continued to fight back in the second half, and knocked on the door of the lead on several occasions, but the Mocs never trailed in the final 20 minutes of the contest.

Chattanooga held off a feisty East Tennessee State team in the second half, 73-67, to gain a little retribution for other fallen 1-seeds and punch their ticket to the Big Dance.

With all of the hype surrounding the match-up, both teams fell flat out of the gate. Neither team scored in the first two-plus minutes of the game, and the first points of the game went to Chattanooga at the 17:39 mark on a jumper from Greg Pryor.

East Tennessee State found the scoreboard just seconds later, thanks to a three pointer from Ge’Lawn Guyn,  and we were off and running in Asheville.

The teams would trade baskets, and the lead, over the next four minutes, before Chattanooga would start to take over. With the score sitting at 9-8 in favour of the Buccaneers, the Mocs went on a 10-0 run to push themselves ahead by 9, and put the momentum squarely in their corner.

Duke Ethridge got the run started with a three pointer, and Tre’ McLean capped it off with a tip-in on a second-chance opportunity. East Tennessee State would answer back with back-to-back dunks from Peter Jurkin and Deuce Bello, but the Mocs had an answer of their own.

Chattanooga would continue to stretch their lead as the half ticked away, taking a 12-point lead on several occasions. Pryor hit a layup with 3 seconds left in the half to send the Mocs into the break with a 12-point lead.

With 20 minutes to play, the Mocs were in full control of the game.

But, there was still 20 more minutes of basketball to be played, and the Buccaneers weren’t going down without a fight to the finish.

Lester Wilson opened the half with a three pointer for East Tennessee State, which was the way they wanted to kick things off. Chattanooga answered right back to push their lead back to 11, so the Buccaneers’ momentum out of the gate was short-lived.

East Tennessee State continued to fight, and used a 9-0 run to get back to within a single point. A.J. Merriweather made a layup in the lane to get the Buccaneers within 48-47. Chattanooga bent, but didn’t break, and answered the Merriweather layup with a pair of free throws from Dee Oldham to give themselves a 3-point lead.

T.J. Cromer would cut the Mocs’ lead to 2 with 5:43 left, getting the Buccaneers to within 59-57 with plenty of time left on the clock.

Unfortunately for East Tennessee State, that’s where their comeback efforts fell short, as they were held off the scoreboard for almost 4 minutes, allowing Chattanooga to stretch their lead back to 8 before the Buccaneers scored again.

Strong free throw shooting from McLean and Oldham down the stretch put the game on ice. The Buccaneers put up a strong fight in the second half, but their comeback efforts fell short in the end.

The top-seeded Chattanooga Mocs took down the East Tennessee State Buccaneers, 73-67, to nab the Southern Conference title and a spot in the field of 68.

Game Leaders

East Tennessee State was fuelled by three key transfer players this season, and they were three of the best players on the floor for the Buccaneers on Monday night. T.J. Cromer scored 13 points, and added 3 rebounds and 3 assists in the loss.

Missouri-transfer Deuce Bello added 9 points and 3 rebounds, while Cincinnati-transfer Ge’Lawn Guyn added 11 points and 4 rebounds of his own. Sophomore Desonta Bradford scored a game-high 14 points off the bench in the loss.

A balanced scoring attack led the Chattanooga Mocs to the victory, and ultimately the NCAA Tournament. Seven of the eight players who scored in the game had at least 7 points, and 3 reached double-figures. Tre’ McLean and Greg Pryor had 13 points apiece, while Eric Robertson added 12 points of his own.

Dee Oldham came off the bench to record 9 points and 9 rebounds.

Looking Ahead

Despite their second-half comeback, the East Tennessee State Buccaneers (23-11, 14-4) fell just short in their efforts to make it to the NCAA Tournament. They will likely find themselves in a post-season event, it’s just a matter of time to find out which one.

With the win, a top-seed from a conference is off to the NCAA Tournament, and the Chattanooga Mocs (29-5, 15-3) are a team nobody will want to face in the Big Dance. On Selection Sunday, they will find out their opening round destination, and they will begin preparations for their opponent.

– T.B.

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