For East Tennessee State’s basketball teams, the most pivotal point of the season has arrived.
The Atlantic Sun Conference men’s and women’s basketball tournaments begin today at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., and postseason hopes for the Bucs and Lady Bucs are riding on a successful showing in the annual event.
For the Lady Bucs, they face the toughest test in the conference today at noon in a rematch with regular-season champion Florida Gulf Coast.
The Lady Eagles make their first appearance in the conference tournament after an unblemished, 18-0 record in league play during the regular season.
ETSU, which has won three Atlantic Sun tournament crowns, gave FGCU a run for its money last week in a 71-64 loss at MSHA Athletic Center. Second-team All- Atlantic Sun selection sophomore Destiny Mitchell delivered a 23-point, 20-rebound game, but it wasn’t enough.
The Lady Bucs will be seeking their sixth consecutive semifinal appearance with a win in the game, whereas FGCU is trying to become the third school in league history to reach the title game in its first appearance.
Led by league Coach of the Year Karl Smesko, the Lady Eagles lead the league in scoring offense with 74.8 points a game behind the nation’s leading three-point shooting mark (10.9 a game), while allowing just 52.8 points defensively in league play.
While the task is tough for the Lady Bucs, the ETSU men certainly have an easier task in their opening game — a semifinal rematch Thursday against fifth-seed North Florida, which upset the Bucs one game out of the finals last March.
The Bucs beat UNF in their two games this season, earning a 64-63 victory on the road with a 65-50 decision at home.
ETSU, following a week of off-court news including a robbery and the arrest and suspension of Sheldon Cooley, will rely on senior leadership of first-team all-conference pick and Atlantic Sun Scholar Athlete of the Year Adam Sollazzo, and former all-conference selections Tommy Hubbard and Isiah Brown this week.
The three experienced title wins and NCAA Tournament appearances in both 2009 and 2010.
Should the Bucs win, they’ll likely meet a tough Belmont squad, which faces Jacksonville in its quarterfinal tilt today.
The semifinal round for both the men and women are scheduled for Friday with Atlantic Sun championship games on Saturday.
Former Elizabethton Lady Cyclone Jessica Brumit is heating it up on the tennis court for the Lady Buccaneers.
Brumit won two consecutive matches as the sixth seed against opponents from UNC-Wilmington and South Carolina State.
For the season, Brumit is 9-6 in singles play.
On the men’s side, the Bucs overcame six-straight team losses with a weekend sweep over Tennessee Tech and Appalachian State.
Sander Gille has won four of his last five singles matches to lead the way for ETSU.
Tony Skole’s squad followed a disappointing finish against Eastern Kentucky in its opening series with a sweep of St. Joseph’s over the weekend to improve to 4-2 on the year.
At the plate, Derek Niesman and Matthew Scruggs have gotten off to hot starts for the Buccaneers, batting .474 and .435, respectively, through the two opening series at Thomas Stadium.
Niesman has nine hits, including two home runs on the year, while Scruggs has 10 hits with four homers, six RBI and nine runs scored.
ETSU’s starting pitching has been impressive thus far, with top three starters John Long, Jake Long and Derek Bushey all posting ERAs under 2.0 in at least two appearances.
John Long is 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA with 12 strikeouts, while his brother, Jake, is 0-1 with a 1.69 ERA and 12 strikeouts.
Bushey posts a 1.80 ERA with a 1-0 mark in three appearances.
The Lady Bucs won two of their five games in the Frost Classic in Chattanooga over the weekend to improve their season record to 3-10.
Sam Lower is leading the Lady Bucs at the plate, batting .394 on the season thus far in 10 games with 13 hits, including two doubles, two home runs and 10 RBI.
Locally, former Unicoi County standout Kara Woods is 0-2 on the mound in five appearances and two starts for ETSU.
The Lady Buccaneers, behind their best round of the event, finished in a tie for seventh at the Sir Pizza Cards Challenge Tuesday.
ETSU tied with Southern Miss with N.C. State taking top team honors.
Junior Chloe Garner finished in a tie for 10th on the individual leaderboard to pace ETSU. Freshman Gabrielle Wahl had an even-par 72 Tuesday to lead the Lady Bucs’ day on the course.
TRACK AND FIELD
ETSU’s men’s and women’s indoor track teams visit Blacksburg, Va., Saturday for the Virginia Tech Last Chance Qualifier.
It’s the last opportunity for athletes to earn a qualifying time for the NCAA Indoor Meet in Boise, Idaho the weekend of March 9-10.
Wes Holtsclaw is a sportswriter for the Elizabethton Star. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org