JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (Dec. 3, 2014) – On a night when the goal was to fill Freedom Hall, ETSU and Western Carolina filled the baskets with a record shooting performance.
But as he has done on multiple occasions already this season, it was ETSU senior guard Jalen Riley (Racine, Wis.) who landed the decisive blow in the final seconds.
With a pair of free throws and a clutch 3-pointer that took a tie game and gave the Buccaneers a five-point lead with 1:39 left on the clock, Riley – who finished with a career high 31 points – helped ETSU hold off Western Carolina 96-89 in the Southern Conference opener for both teams Wednesday evening in front of 4,287 fans at Freedom Hall.
Along with helping seal with win, Riley’s final 3-pointer of the game also helped the Bucs match the school record for 3-pointers in a game with 15, while Western Carolina finished with 11 long-range shots of its own on the night. In fact, Western overcame a 16-point halftime deficit to tie the game at 83 before ETSU used a 10-0 run to end the Catamounts’ threat.
“It says a lot about a team and a player when you can win close games,” said ETSU head coach Murry Bartow, whose team improved to 5-1 overall and 1-0 in SoCon play. “We still have a lot of work to do and some changes to make, but we are off to a good start as a team and I’m really proud of our guys. For Jalen to make the plays he made and to make the shots he made tonight is really something special.”
Along with Riley’s 31 points, the Bucs also got 22 points from senior guard Rashawn Rembert (Tampa, Fla.), 17 from junior forward Lester Wilson (Knoxville) and 16 from sophomore guard A.J. Merriweather (Jackson). Meanwhile, the Catamounts were led by a career high 30 points from guard Rhett Harrelson, while fellow guard James Sinclair netted 23 and forward Torrion Brummitt added 11.
It was the 16th straight win for Bucs against Western Carolina, and in the first half it appeared the Bucs would run away from the Catamounts.
ETSU was on target from the outset of the game, hitting eight 3-pointers in the first half and shooting an impressive 50 percent from beyond the arc before the intermission. The attack was led by Riley and Rembert, who combined for 32 of the Bucs’ 52 points in the first 20 minutes of play. ETSU also was impressive in the open court, outscoring the Catamounts 16-0 in fast break points.
Western tried to answer the onslaught thanks to 15 points from Sinclair, but it was not enough. The Cats hit on just 18 percent of their shots from beyond the arc and ultimately trailed 52-36 at the break.
In the second half though, Western Carolina began to match the Bucs’ outside shooting – thanks primarily to Sinclair and Harrelson – who combined to hit seven 3-pointers to get to within five points at 77-72 with seven minutes left in the game.
Harrleson continued to stay hot, hitting two more 3-pointers at that point, followed by a traditional 3-point play by WCU forward Mike Brown that ultimately tied the game at 83 with 3:16 left in the game. However, from there Riley took over with his two free throws and his final 3-pointer of the night, igniting the Bucs 10-0 run to make it 93-83 with 39 seconds left. Western Carolina never recovered at that point.
ETSU finished the game shooting 50 percent from 3-point range (15-of-30) and 75 percent from the foul line (27-of-36), while Western shot 47 percent from 3-point range in the second half. The Catamounts outscored the Bucs 32-18 in the paint, but ETSU held a 37-12 advantage in points off the bench.
The Bucs will return to conference play on Saturday, Dec. 13, when they host UNC Greensboro at Freedom Hall. Tip is set for 4 p.m. For more on ETSU men’s basketball throughout the 2014-15 season, visit ETSUBucs.com and click on the men’s hoops link.