Playing in front of several thousand enthusiastic blue-and-gold clad fans, the Bucs held off VMI for a 70-57 victory in the quarterfinals at Harrah’s Cherokee Center.
Daivien Williamson had 15 points to lead ETSU (28-4), which tied the school record for victories in a season.
The top-seeded Bucs advanced to Sunday’s 4 p.m. semifinal, where they will meet No. 5 Western Carolina, a 70-56 winner over fourth-seeded Mercer.
“It’s a good first win for us,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes said.
VMI (9-24) set a SoCon tournament record with 18 3-pointers in a first-round win over Samford the night before. The Bucs held the Keydets to 8-of-25 shooting from long range.
“We knew we had to be locked in,” Williamson said. “We knew if they made 18 3s again tonight, we’d lose.”
Williamson was certainly locked in on both ends of the floor. The sophomore guard made all seven of his field goal attempts and looked comfortable in his second SoCon tournament.
“Coach told me to be aggressive,” Williamson said. “He told me to burn the ball. Last time he told me to do that was before the Wofford game and I had a pretty good game.”
Tray Boyd III and Isaiah Tisdale added 12 points each and Joe Hugley had 11 in less than nine minutes of playing time.
“It’s not like some teams where you think if you hold down one or two guys, you might be in good shape,” VMI coach Dan Earl said. “They have a variety of guys who can score. They bring it at you quite a bit. They have physical guys who can also make shots.”
Sean Conway’s 11 points led VMI. Greg Parham had 10.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
The Bucs had sold out their final two home games of the season and surpassed 80,000 fans for their home games. That support continued Saturday as the arena where ETSU once won four SoCon tournaments in a row felt like Freedom Hall South, a fact noticed by both teams.
“I don’t even know how to describe it,” Forbes said. “I guess I’m a little spoiled because I’m so used to it. It’s one of the main reasons I wanted to come coach here and I am the coach here, because of the passion of our fans. It’s the biggest crowd I’ve seen in my five years here for the first session. It will probably grow, and rightfully so. These kids deserve this. And we have a great team.”
Earl, who played at Penn State, said his team took the hostile crowd as a challenge.
“As I told the guys, having played a little bit back in the day and coaching for a while, there’s nothing better than trying to quiet down a partial crowd,” Earl said. “Take it as a challenge and see what we can do. I thought our guys fought really hard.”
Hugley came off the bench to score nine points in a row in one stretch early in the first half. He wound up making 3 of 4 shots and didn’t play in the second half.
“All season we’ve played in pretty big games,” said Hugley, who transferred from Central Connecticut State. “It’s like nothing new. I was trying to take it as a regular game and lock in on the game plan. That’s what I tried to do today, come in and be effective in the minutes that I played.”
Lucas N’Guessan, the Bucs’ 7-footer, fouled out after scoring five points. At least two of his calls were considered phantom offensive fouls on the ETSU sideline.
“This might be the most offensive fouls called in a game I’ve seen as a head coach, very disjointed,” Forbes said. “Our size was negated because of the way it was officiated.”
BY THE NUMBERS
The Bucs’ largest lead was 19 points in the second half.
VMI outrebounded ETSU 38-32, but the Bucs shot 51% and held the Keydets to 36%. ETSU committed 16 times and forced VMI into 18.
Tisdale led ETSU with eight rebounds. He, Williamson and Boyd tied for the team lead with three assists each.
Bo Hodges, one of ETSU’s all-conference picks, finished with five points and missed seven of his eight shots.