DAYTON, Ohio (March 20, 2009) - Two decades removed from nearly stunning the college basketball world, the ETSU men's basketball team took another shot at a No. 1 seed and once again the Buccaneers gave the giant a scare.
Having lost to No. 1-seeded Oklahoma 72-71 back in 1989, the Buccaneers have a history of making things interesting in the NCAA Tournament, and Friday afternoon inside the UD Arena, ETSU found itself trailing the No. 1 seed and Big East Conference's Pittsburgh 59-57 with just over four minutes left in regulation. However, the Bucs were unable to complete the upset bid, ultimately falling to the Panthers 72-62.
With the loss, the Bucs' season comes to an end while Pittsburgh advances to the second round where the Panthers will meet Oklahoma State on Sunday afternoon.
"I'm very proud of our guys - they fought incredibly hard," said ETSU head coach Murry Bartow, whose team finishes the season as the Atlantic Sun Conference champions with a 23-11 record. "Coach (Jamie) Dixon does a great job and Pittsburgh is a heck of a team, but we're disappointed because we thought we were going to win. We came here to win and we believed that we could. We showed that we could."
The Bucs' effort was unquestionable on this day, as ETSU forced 18 Pittsburgh turnovers and dominated the offensive glass en route to a 25-7 advantage in second chance points. However, while the competitiveness was there, the Bucs offensive efficiency was not at its best as ETSU shot just 31 percent from the floor (23-of-75) and 50 percent from the foul line (12-of-24) for the game.
Despite the poor shooting effort, the Bucs full court press and man-to-man defense consistently caused Pittsburgh problems and kept ETSU in the game. In fact, the Bucs tied the game five times in the second half and pulled to within two at 59-57 with just over four minutes left.
At that point, ETSU forced yet another turnover and had a shot to tie the game. However, a turnover by senior forward Kevin Tiggs (Flint, Mich.) led to a 3-point play by Pittsburgh's 6-foot-7, 265-pound center Dejuan Blair to make it 62-57. From there, Tiggs hit a pair of free throws to make it 62-59, but that was as close as the Bucs could get the rest of the way, as they were forced to foul and Pittsburgh pushed the lead out to the final 10-point deficit by hitting its free throws.
The first half was an offensive nightmare for the Bucs, but their efforts on the defensive end stifled the Panthers and kept the fans in Dayton on the edge of their seats. ETSU shot just 24 percent in the first 20 minutes and did not have a field goal for the final 8:04 of the half. Even more disheartening, the Bucs' 23 points in the half matched their lowest first half output of the season.
However, forcing 13 Pittsburgh turnovers on five steals and staying in the rebound battle bolstered the Bucs, who never trailed by more than six and had the game tied at 20-20 with 6:35 left in the half before ultimately going to the intermission with the score 26-23. The Bucs appeared to have made it a 26-25 game on a last second bank shot by junior guard Mike Smith (Vandalia, Mo.), but the officials went to the replay and determined to wipe off the basket.
For the game, Tiggs led ETSU with a team-high 21 points, while fellow senior Courtney Pigram (Memphis) pitched in 17. Meanwhile, senior Greg Hamlin (Flint, Mich.) led the Bucs with 10 rebounds and played well in trying to defending the power inside game of Blair. For Pittsburgh, Blair posted a double-double with 27 points and 16 rebounds, while teammates Sam Young and Ashton Gibbs pitched in 14 and 10 points, respectively.
For the Bucs, it was another close call in the tournament, as ETSU has now lost three first round games over the last seven years by an average of just over five points a contest. The Bucs fell to Wake Forest (2003) and Cincinnati (2004) by three earlier this decade, while now the 10-point loss to Pittsburgh goes in the ETSU record books.
The Bucs' 10-point loss was the closest a No. 16 seed has come to beating a No. 1 since Fairfield lost to North Carolina, 82-74. It was also the closest any 16 seed out of the Atlantic Sun Conference has come to beating a No. 1.
For more on ETSU men's basketball during the offseason, visit ETSUBucs.com and click on the men's basketball link.