By Trey Williams
Former East Tennessee State basketball coach Alan LeForce can relate to Buccaneers coach Steve Forbes.
Both were in their 50s when ETSU gave them their first Division I head coaching job. Each recorded their 51st win in their second season during the Southern Conference championship game in Asheville.
And, LeForce says, Forbes has a good chance of getting his 52nd win the same way he did – in the NCAA Tournament.
The Bucs received a No. 13 seed and will take on fourth-seeded Florida on Thursday in Orlando at approximately 3:10 p.m. LeForce’s Bucs were seeded No. 14 when they beat third-seeded Arizona, 87-80, on March 20, 1992 at the Omni in Atlanta, although ETSU’s coaches and players didn’t consider it an upset after giving Arizona fits during a hard-fought loss in Tucson in the Preseason NIT the previous season.
Players and some Bucs fans gathered at LeForce’s house to watch CBS reveal the pairings for the ’92 tournament.
Story continues below, more pictures at bottom
“So we get Arizona and our guys were going crazy,” said the 82-year-old LeForce, who lives in Conway, S.C. “They were jumping up and down. People said, ‘Why in the world are you so happy about playing Arizona?’ And our guys said, ‘Because we can beat ‘em. We’ll beat ‘em.’”
LeForce doesn’t anticipate Forbes’ Bucs lacking confidence.
“I think Forbes does a great job,” LeForce said. “I watched that whole game (against UNC Greensboro) and I’ve watched ‘em play before. He does a nice job and he’s got good assistant coaches and players. And the Tri-Cities is rallying around them. Florida better be ready to play, because I know that East Tennessee’s gonna be ready.”
Lute Olson’s Arizona Wildcats had five players that played in the NBA (Damon Stoudamire, Sean Rooks, Chris Mills, Ed Stokes, Khalid Reaves), but couldn’t guard against a 3-point barrage from ETSU. High-leaping 6-foot-4 swing man Rodney English opened the scoring with a 3-pointer from the left wing via a drive and kick-out from 6-foot-11 Greg Dennis.
By halftime ETSU led 45-34 thanks to 12-for-20 3-point shooting, and one of the misses was Marty Story’s half-court buzzer-beater, which was on line but just short off the front of the rim.
English made three treys, tallied a game-high 21 points and matched Reaves’ game-high five assists. The Bucs also got double-digit scoring from athletic wing Calvin Talford (15), point guard Jason Niblett (13) and 6-7 sophomore Trazel Silvers (12), as well as eight points apiece from Dennis and fellow senior Marty Story, the Bucs’ dirty-jobs dynamo.
“You’ve gotta have muscle and a guy who can check anybody,” Silvers said. “Marty would play anybody from the two to the five. I appreciate him when I watch A.J. Merriweather play. I told Marty the other day, ‘Man, that’s our Marty Story right there, Merriweather.’ He’s a glue guy.”
Talford also made three of ETSU’s 13 treys, and Niblett added two. Dennis, Silvers, Story, Jerry Pelphrey, and Ereck Palmer each added one 3-pointer. (English is the head coach of state tournament-bound East Hamilton, where Palmer is an assistant.)
Rooks (6-foot-10), Stokes (7-0), Wayne Womack (6-8) and Mills (6-6) made it difficult for Arizona to match up.
“They couldn’t play off of us, they couldn’t play on us,” said Silvers, whose 3-pointer on an assist from Palmer gave ETSU its first double-digit lead (45-34) with 20 seconds left in the half. “We had told each other, ‘Whatever happens, we have to get off to a solid start.’ … We didn’t let them come out and throw no haymaker on us. After the first 10 minutes you could look on their faces and tell they’re like, ‘Man, this is gonna be a game.’”
It didn’t look like Arizona would make it much of a game for a while. English’s 3-pointer from the left corner made it 66-50 with 11-plus minutes remaining.
“I don’t believe what I’m seeing,” CBS play-by-play man Greg Gumbel said after English’s trey.
Along with English, ETSU had five other players with multiple assists – Talford, Palmer, Niblett, Silvers and Dennis.
“We ran a little passing game, a little drive and pitch,” LeForce said. “Jason Niblett could do that – all of our guys could put in on the floor. And if somebody came and helped we’d hit the open man and we could shoot that three. Even Greg could shoot it. …
“We were small and people would always say, ‘Good law, how are you gonna defend other people?’ What this team taught me was hey, we didn’t have to defend the other people if the other people couldn’t defend us. And they (Arizona) couldn’t stay up with us.”
Still, Reaves, Rooks, Womack and Mills scored during a 10-0 run that got Arizona within 66-60 with 10:10 left. Pelphrey stopped the bleeding with a 7-foot bank in transition, but the Wildcats stayed within striking distance.
A pair of Stoudamire free throws cut ETSU’s lead to 83-80 with 30 seconds left, but Dennis and Niblett combined to make 4 of 6 foul shots to seal it.
The win was especially gratifying for Niblett, a first-year junior college transfer that was replacing Keith “Mister” Jennings at point guard. Jennings had led ETSU to the NCAA Tournament each of the previous three seasons, though the Bucs couldn’t get over the hump against top-seeded Oklahoma (72-71), Iowa (76-73) or Georgia Tech (99-83).
“I’ll see somebody every day,” Talford said, “that’ll say, ‘Yea, I watched y’all when you beat Arizona when you had Greg and Mister.’ And I’m like, ‘Mister was gone. We had Niblett.’”
ETSU lost 102-90 in the second round to Michigan’s Fab Five, which advanced to the national championship game before losing to Duke. The Bucs’ 90 points were 18 more than Michigan allowed to any other NCAA Tournament opponent, and that came despite Talford (three points) being slowed by the flu.
“At the beginning of the game they were talking, like, mad trash,” Silvers said. “I remember Jaylan (Rose) coming up to us (afterward) and saying, ‘Man, I don’t know where Johnson City is, but you guys can play.’”
Beating Arizona wasn’t LeForce’s high point at ETSU. It was being named head coach there that couldn’t be topped. There was essentially a five-minute period of doubt as to whether or not he would replace his boss Les Robinson, who left for North Carolina State after taking the Bucs to two NCAA Tournaments. LeForce, who went 2-0 against Robinson’s North Carolina State teams, recalled anxious moments during a meeting that included the players, ETSU president Ron Beller and athletic director Janice Shelton.
“One of the players – I don’t remember if it was Marty or Mister – got up and said, ‘Dr. Beller, you’ve got the finest coach you’ll ever find sitting right there,’” LeForce said. “So you could imagine what that made me feel like. I could’ve cried, really.
“He said, ‘Well, he’s gonna be your next coach.’ And I was on a cloud, bud. When I walked out of there – I lived on Strawberry Lane, which is up the hill – I think I could’ve floated up there I was so happy. I was 55 and I’d been waiting a long time, since I started coaching at the age of 23.
“But the thing it taught me was you never give up. I prepared every day as if someday I’d get that D-I job. … And those 12-13 years in Johnson City – the Tri-Cities area – are some of the happiest times in my life.”