East Tennessee State University’s Lady Bucs basketball team nearly knocked off 17th-ranked University of Tennessee-Chattanooga in Sunday’s Southern Conference tournament final, forcing overtime with a huge rally before falling 61-56.
The Lady Bucs, 21-11, earned an automatic bid to the WNIT Tournament and will learn their seeding and first-round matchup Monday. The Lady Mocs, 29-3 and with wins over No. 5 Tennessee and No. 14 Stanford on their resume this season, head to their third straight NCAA tournament.
After going into halftime trailing, 35-19, and watching the Mocs take their biggest lead of the game in the opening two-and-a-half minutes of the second period, ETSU manufactured a 15-0 run from the 11:22 to 5:02 marks to trail by only three, 46-43, on freshman point guard Tianna Tarter’s lay in. With seconds remaining in regulation, senior forward Serena Clark scored off of an offensive rebound to send the game into overtime at 51 all.
Second-year coach Brittney Ezell lauded ETSU’s grit in the post-game news conference, saying the team exemplified its philosophy that, “there’s no lead that’s insurmountable; there’s no effort that should be spared.”
Ezell said the plan to return the Bucs to prominence (they went to the NCAA tournament in 2008, 2009 and 2010) was, “ahead of schedule.” The Lady Bucs won just 25 games from 2012-2014, including nine last season.
“We’ve got a little bit of work to do in order to dethrone the champ, but I think that gap is closing rapidly and I think that’s a testament to our kids,” she said.
The Lady Bucs outplayed and outscored UTC in the first 10 minutes of the first half and the last 11 minutes of the second, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a poor stretch in between. From the time they led 15-12 with 9:49 left in the first half until they started their 15-0 run in the second, ETSU was outscored 34-13.
Destiny Mitchell led the Lady Bucs with a team-high 19 points and 10 rebounds. Sophomore guard Shamauria Bridges added 12 points, while Clark grabbed a game-best 11 rebounds. Tarter, a former Science Hill High School player, was named along with Mitchell and to the All-Tournament First Team, while Clark was selected to the Second Team.
For the tournament, which also included wins over Western Carolina and Mercer, Tarter averaged 12 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists. She grabbed 15 rebounds in the win over Mercer.
Statistically, shooting doomed the Bucs, who outrebounded UTC 42-27 and were essentially even with the favorites in blocks, steals and turnovers. The rebounding, including an 18-4 edge on the offensive glass, gave ETSU 13 more shots, but both teams hit 23 field goals, with UTC shooting 46 percent to ETSU’s 36.5 percent. Each team attempted 16 three pointers, and again, UTC had the edge, making seven to the Lady Bucs three.