By Collin Brooks
Led by their smallest heavyweight, a battle for first place in the Southern Conference stayed true to its title bout acclaim, as ETSU needed overtime to knockout Furman with a 93-81 victory.
One of six seniors, second-year Buc T.J. Cromer scored 24 of his career-high 32 points in the second period and overtime to finish his time inside Freedom Hall with another highlight performance.
“Great game, great atmosphere and we came out with the W, you couldn’t ask for more,” said Cromer, who was visibly emotional after the win as he embraced ETSU coach Steve Forbes.
With the win, ETSU (23-6, 13-3) claims sole possession of first place in the Southern Conference, while Furman (20-10, 13-4) falls to second. The Bucs have two regular season games left in the season, at Western Carolina this Saturday and at UNC-Greensboro on Monday. The Spartans currently sit in third place at 21-8, 12-4.
But none of that was visible through the smiles of celebration in the media room.
“We had some big time performances by a lot of our guys, but I want to give a lot of credit to T.J. Cromer. He was crying coming off the court, he left it all out there and that’s all I told my team before the game, ‘No regrets, lay it out there,’ And I got on them at halftime.
“I thought Furman played tougher than us in the first half, they were getting the loose balls and the offensive rebounds and we weren’t. So I asked them how bad did they want it?”
ETSU also recieved 17 points and 11 rebounds from senior Tevin Glass, 12 points from David Burrell and 11 points from Desonta Bradford.
The Bucs looked to be in fine order, after Cromer put his team up 74-71 after connecting on a pair of free throws with 11 seconds remaining. The Bucs decided against fouling, which Forbes said in post-game wasn’t an option with so much time left, and Furman’s Jordan Davis connected on a deep 3-pointer to send the contest into overtime knotted at 74.
“We didn’t out quite enough pressure up on him and he made a big shot. So all you can do is shake his hand,” said Forbes, whose team went perfect in the extra period (4-4 FG, 3-3 3PT and 9-9 FT) “But our guys had tremendous resolve in the huddle.”
“…We’ve got six seniors and they want to win, they want to win the league and they know that we had to win this game. We didn’t panic, we stayed to our game plan. One of the things I talked about was staying together and the one thing that we did the entire game is we never fractured. It got a little chippy one time, okay, but we didn’t fracture, we stayed together.”
ETSU held a six point lead after a Cromer 3-pointer with 13 minutes remaining. But the chippy-ness ensued three minutes later after the Bucs were hit with double technicals on Cromer and Ike Banks with 10:01 remaining. Knoxville-native and Furman junior Devin Sibley — who finished with a team-high 19 points — picked up a technical in the skirmish for the Paladins, but he also delivered two free throws to spark a 13-4 run for his team. Furman held a 68-64 lead with just under five minutes remaining.
With 2:09 remaining, A.J. Merriweather connected with 3-pointer from the corner to make the score 71-70 in the Paladins favor. An emphatic alley-oop to Burrell, after a timeout, gave the Bucs the 72-71 lead with 1:27 remaining in the contest.
The Bucs were down by as many as 10 points with 2:31 remaining in the half, but they were able to trim it the lead before the half.
The biggest part of the run happened when Burrell knocked down a 3-pointer from the corner just in front of Furman’s bench to bring the Bucs within 36-34 with 1:10 remaining.
ETSU has a chance to take the lead, but Cromer came down and missed a 3-pointer and Sibley connected on a lay-up at the other end to end the half at 38-34.