NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (March 6, 2004) - East Tennessee State captured its second straight Southern Conference Basketball Championship by beating Chattanooga 78-62 Saturday in the 2004 event in front of 3,679 at the North Charleston Coliseum.
The conference title is the sixth for ETSU (27-5), which earns an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
"I'm obviously very proud of our guys," said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. "They have been incredibly level-headed all year and have had their eyes on this moment all season. We think we can continue on and maybe have some success (in the NCAA Tournament)."
Tourney MVP Tim Smith (Newport News, Va.) turned in phenomenal numbers once again for the Bucs (No. 1 seed, North Division), scoring 25 points to go with six rebounds and two assists. Smith averaged 25.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 3.3 steals in the tournament. Smith was a unanimous choice for MVP, earning all 44 votes from media and tournament officials, and adding that trophy to the one that collected last season as the tournament's best player.
Other Bucs honored as All-Tournament included senior forwards Zakee Wadood (Lonoke Ark.) and Jerald Fields (Gainesville, Fla.) as first team selections and freshman guard Travis Strong (Memphis) was a second-team pick.
"Timmy is a big game player," said Bartow. "He just loves to play. He's at his best on a big stage."
With Smith carrying the scoring load, the ETSU defense did the rest. The Bucs held Chattanooga (No.2 seed, North) to 34 percent shooting for the game, including a 6-for-31 effort from 3-point range.
Unfortunately, the Mocs (19-11) were handicapped in the first minute of the game when senior Ashley Champion was forced out of the game with an ankle injury.
In Champion's place, Alphonso Pugh picked up some of the slack with 20 points and eight rebounds. Chris Brown added 10 points and seven boards, while Mindaugas Katelynas had nine points and 10 rebounds.
Chattanooga, who had already posted come-from-behind wins in both tournament games prior to the finals, seemed on the verge of pulling off another one. ETSU built a lead of 16 with 12:00 remaining, but the Mocs began cutting into their deficit right away.
Bryan Richardson sank three 3-pointers and Pugh added another one to cut the score to 63-58. But Smith drained a 25-foot 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to change the momentum. Moments later, Wadood drilled another trey to dash the Mocs' hopes. The Bucs finished the game on a 15-2 run.
"I'm proud of my team," said Chattanooga coach Jeff Lebo. "We had a chance to win the game without our leader. Champion is our only all-conference player and he is our leader. We played one of our best defensive battles all night. Tim Smith had that phenomenal play. With the shot clock at one second, he bobbled the ball, threw it and it went in."
Smith took charge in the first half with 13 points, which pushed him over 1,000 points for his career. ETSU took a 43-35 lead into the break.
"This is a do-or-die game," said Smith. "If we lose, we're out. We wanted to keep this going."
Smith wasn't alone. Strong picked up his play where he left off in the semifinals and scored nine in the half. Strong finished with 11, Wadood tossed in 14 points to go with eight rebounds and Brad Nuckles (Council, Va.) had 10 points, eight boards and four blocked shots.
"This ETSU team is one of the best teams they've had," said Lebo. "I've had the fortune to have coached on some of the really good teams at ETSU and this one is the best."
ETSU will find who and where they play in the NCAAs on Sunday, March 14.