UK Men's Basketball

ETSU overcame tragedy, injury to face Cats

The NCAA Tournament is nothing new for East Tennessee State. Neither is the 16th seed's 0-100 futility against No. 1 seeds.

But the Bucs go into Thursday's first-round game against Kentucky with the joy that accompanies surprising success.

"This is kind of unexpected," Coach Murry Bartow said on Tuesday. "Some years you think you can get this done and get to the (NCAA) tournament. Other years you don't."

This was one of the seasons Bartow did not expect to be in the NCAA Tournament.

Last summer, one of East Tennessee State's players died in a car crash. Then its best player sustained a season-ending injury in the first practice.

So how does East Tennessee State find itself in the NCAA Tournament and playing Kentucky?"We just kind of hung in there," Bartow said. "It's been an interesting year. It's been a challenging year."

Seth Coy, a 7-foot sophomore to be, died in a car crash on his way to visit his team in Indiana last summer.

The team traveled together to the funeral, where Coy's roommate, Adam Sollazzo, and Bartow gave eulogies. Sollazzo later decided to change his number from No. 20 to Coy's No. 43 this season.

When East Tennessee State won the Atlantic Sun Tournament, the team cut a piece of the net in Coy's honor.

"It really shattered us all," Bartow said of Coy's death. "He had a lot of bright days ahead of him. He was going to be a heck of a player. More importantly, he was a neat kid and a fun kid to be around.

"Since that time, it's been real challenging."

Then East Tennessee State lost senior leader Mike Smith to a knee injury.

"He was really the heart and soul of the team," Bartow said. "I would have been shocked if he wasn't the player of the year in our league."

Bartow's message to his team was to keep competing, keep working to get better.

"It's been kind of one struggle after another," Bartow said. "But I'm really proud of our guys. They hung in there, kept grinding, kept getting better."

East Tennessee State's season came to a crossroads at Campbell on Feb. 19. The Bucs lost 79-57 to fall to 14-14. Among the teams beating East Tennessee State were Louisville (69-56), Arkansas (94-85) and Tennessee (78-66). All on the road, naturally.

Backs to the wall at Campbell was nothing new. A year earlier, East Tennessee State lost at Campbell, then won five straight to make the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Bucs won six in a row.

"I don't know what it's about in that Campbell locker room after a game," Bartow said. "I guess we kind of figured it out."

But there was no clear sailing this year. Two days later, East Tennessee State fell behind at home by 18 points to South Carolina. Bartow put in five reserves near the end of the half. Those substitutes reduced the deficit to eight by halftime.

East Tennessee State won 63-56.

"I think that was the biggest moment of the year because I know we desperately needed momentum," Bartow said. "If we lose that game, we're in real trouble."

Forward Tommy Hubbard (14.1 ppg) is the team's leading scorer and one of three with double-digit averages. Guard Micah Williams (12.5 ppg) scored 32 points as East Tennessee State beat Campbell 72-64 in the Atlantic Sun Tournament. Justin Tubbs, a transfer from Alabama, averages 12.0 points.

East Tennessee State is no stranger to NCAA Tournament play. The Bucs will be making their ninth appearance, second straight and fourth since 2002.

East Tennessee State nearly made history as a 16th seed in 1989. The Bucs lost to No. 1 seed Oklahoma 72-71. As a 16th seed last year, East Tennessee was in a one-possession game against No. 1 seed Pittsburgh with three minutes left. Then Pittsburgh pulled away to win 72-62.

Bartow hopes that history helps against Kentucky.

"I think it's important," he said, "but I'm not sure it helps at 7:15 Thursday night (the tip-off time against UK).

"If you go into this game with a deer-in-the-headlights look, you're going to lose by 50. The No. 1 thing is, you can't go into this game star struck."

That said, Bartow spoke of a healthy respect for Kentucky. He saluted John Calipari as a coach and the Cats' star players. It's star players such as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson who make the difference when a 16th-seeded team threatens a No. 1 seed.

"They make winning plays when it matters," he said. "That's what great players do."

East Tennessee State counters with a scrappy, competitive spirit. The Bucs are small. The Bucs struggle with shooting (43.5 percent) and scoring.

But they are persistent.