East Tennessee State wins A-Sun title game

Mar 7, 2010 - 5:46 AM MACON, Ga.(AP) -- A big change on defense sent East Tennessee State back to the NCAA tournament.

After losing twice to Mercer this season and allowing more than 80 points in each game, the Bucs switched to a zone defense for meeting No. 3 in the Atlantic Sun Conference title game Saturday.

The new plan paid big dividends. ETSU held Mercer's leading scorers, James Florence and Danny Emerson, 15 points below their usual combined average in a 72-66 victory that earned the Bucs their second consecutive trip to the NCAAs.

"By studying a lot of tape, we just thought the zone would give us the best chance of winning," ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. "It wasn't going to ensure winning, but we thought statistically it would give us the best chance. ... It kind of slowed the game down a little bit."

Florence was held to nine points, half his average, on 2-for-11 shooting.

"That was the first time they had zoned us for an entire game," he said. "That was pretty different. Then they trapped Danny out of the zone, which they hadn't done."

Emerson had 13 rebounds, but also four turnovers.

Justin Tubbs scored 18 points off the bench for ETSU. Tommy Hubbard added 14 and tournament MVP Micah Williams had 13 for the fifth-seeded Bucs (20-14), who extended their longest winning streak of the season to six games. They were playing in their third Atlantic Sun championship game in the past four years.

The Bucs won this crown with a vastly different team than last season. East Tennessee State lost three starters to graduation and one to injury from its 2008-09 lineup.

"It comes down to players," Bartow said after winning his second straight tournament title. "Very little coaching involved in a game like this. It comes down to, you better have good players and those good players better make plays. ... I've got good players and they made big plays."

ETSU became the sixth A-Sun team to win consecutive championships and is the second fifth seed to do so. The Bucs are making consecutive NCAA tournament trips for the third time in school history (1989-1992 and 2003-04).

Playing at home, No. 6 seed Mercer (16-17) lost in its first championship game appearance since 1996.

Williams grabbed nine rebounds for the Bucs, who shot 48.2 percent from the field. Isiah Brown had 12 points and Adam Sollazzo 11.

E.J. Kusnyer led Mercer with 16 points, while Brandon Moore added 13.

Florence and Emerson teamed for 33.6 points a game this season. They combined for 18 on Saturday.

The Bucs led 37-35 at halftime, were tied by the Bears twice in the second half and the teams exchanged the lead twice.

Mercer pulled within 62-61 with 1:44 left on Kusnyer's off-balance 3-pointer from the left wing. But Tubbs answered 26 seconds later with a 3-pointer after double-clutching, and the Bucs led 66-61.

Emerson's two free throws with 34.3 seconds left brought the Bears to 66-68, but the Bucs again made it a four-point margin with two free throws by Tubbs less than two seconds later.

Mercer's last chance ended with a turnover, when Williams tipped away an inbounds pass from Florence to Emerson with 19.7 seconds left.

Mercer went 8 for 16 from the free throw line in the second half and endured a 1-for-6 stretch that prevented the Bears from tying or leading.

"Could have gone either way," Bartow said. "Fortunately, we made the big plays down the stretch."

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