NASHVILLE (March 7, 2009) - For most of the 2008-09 season, much had been written and said about ETSU's "Big Three" of senior guard Courtney Pigram (Memphis), senior forward Kevin Tiggs (Flint, Mich.) and junior guard Mike Smith (Vandalia, Mo.).
But on Saturday in the finals of the Atlantic Sun Conference Championships at Allen Arena, it was the Buccaneers "Big 10" that truly made the difference. While Smith posted a double-double with 22 points and 12 rebounds to go with 21 points from Tiggs, the ETSU bench combined to provide 22 points and 12 rebounds in an absolutely dominating 85-68 win over Jacksonville.
With the win, ETSU (23-10) secures a bid to the 2009 NCAA Tournament, marking the eighth time in school history that the Buccaneers have made their way to March Madness. The Bucs are the 16th different team to win the A-Sun title and first new winner since Belmont took the championship in 2006.
"I'm just extremely happy for all 10 guys on our team because this just doesn't happen every year. It's something really special," said ETSU head coach Murry Bartow, who has now guided the Bucs to the NCAAs twice in his six seasons at the helm. "Mike Smith, Kevin Tiggs and Courtney Pigram were fantastic as usual, but the difference today was the entire team and the efforts we got from our bench."
Dominance in the paint and on the glass highlighted the first half for ETSU, along with a quick scoring start for Tiggs. The Bucs held a 22-17 advantage on the boards, outscoring the Dolphins 24-8 in the paint and enjoying a 14-0 edge in second chance points. Meanwhile, Tiggs scored 13 of ETSU's first 23 points, staking the Bucs to a 23-11 lead with just over 11 minutes left in the half.
From there, Tiggs got in foul trouble after picking up his third violation of the game with 6:12 left before the intermission. The score was 32-18 at the time, and despite Tiggs' departure ETSU still pushed the lead out to 43-28 at the break.
In the first half, Tiggs was joined by Smith with 13 points to lead the way, but despite the fact senior guard Courtney Pigram (Memphis) scored just 1 point, it was the supporting cast of freshman forward Isiah Brown (Miami, Fla.), sophomore forward Tommy Hubbard (Boston), sophomore guard Micah Williams (Manchester) and senior forward Greg Hamlin (Flint, Mich.) that combined for 16 points and 12 rebounds off the bench.
The second half opened with another ETSU run, as a 3-pointer by Pigram to open the half ignited an 11-2 run for the Buccaneers and made the score 54-30 with 16:19 left in the game. Jacksonville tried to answer with a 4-0 spurt of its own, but ultimately ETSU would lead by 30 at 69-39 with 9:05 left in the game.
Jacksonville ultimately rallied to outscore the Bucs 29-16 over the final nine minutes, but at that point it was simply too late for the Dolphins to recover.
For the game, ETSU shot 47 percent from the floor and outrebounded the Dolphins 40-34, forcing 15 turnovers on seven steals. Meanwhile, the Bucs' defense held JU to 39 percent shooting and just 68 points on the night.
Along with Smith and Tiggs, Williams finished with a career high 16 points, and Hubbard finished with six points and seven rebounds, while Brown pitched in nine points and five rebounds. Pigram, Smith and Tiggs made all-tournament team, with Tiggs earning MVP honors.
For JU, Ben Smith scored a game high 29, while Ayron Hardy and Evan Jefferson pitched in 11 each.
The Bucs will now await word on who they will play in the NCAA Tournament, as Selection Sunday is scheduled for next Sunday, March 15.