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Southern Conference Finals Recap

March 11, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Southern Conference Finals Recap

Recap by Paul Oren

No. 1N East Tennessee State 78 No. 2N Chattanooga 62
Championship games have a tendency to bring out the best in a player. They say that “Big time players make big time plays in big time games,” and that is what makes a champion.”

Introducing Tim Smith.

For the second year in a row, the sophomore guard from ETSU was voted the SoCon Tournament MVP as he led the Buccaneers back to the NCAA Tournament by helping to defeat Chattanooga 78-62. Smith finished the game with 25 points and 6 rebounds, and on the tournament averaged 25.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 3.3 steals per game. Smith was voted Tournament MVP on every ballot that was turned in.

“Timmy is a big game player,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “He just loves to play. He’s at his best on a big stage.”

Smith wasn’t the only player whose performance mattered in this Championship game, the 5th time in 24 years that ETSU and UTC have met to decide the SoCon championship.

The biggest performance for a Chattanooga player might have been his lack of performance. Ashley Champion, the senior 1st-Team All-Conference forward, sprained his left ankle two minutes into the game and could not return, although not without his trying. Champion, truly made with the heart of a champion, repeatedly returned to the locker room to try and work out the ankle, but it was to no avail. Watching Champion grimace with every step as he walked through the line congratulating the ETSU players was difficult, knowing that he will forever remember his last game as the chance that got away. To their credit, the older ETSU players, Zakee Wadood and Jerald Fields, each pulled Champion tight, as if to say “we respect you.” A brief pause, and then their celebration continued.

After Champion’s injury, ETSU, still adjusting to playing without injured starter James Anthony, tried to take the Mocs out of the game early. Smith had 13 first-half points and went over the 1,000-point plateau in only his second season. The Bucs took a 43-35 lead into the break. Playing their third game in three days, ETSU did the opposite of what most teams have done, and they shortened their bench. Only three bench players saw action, and only two of them played more than 5 minutes.

In Champion’s absence, Alphonso Pugh stepped up to lead Chattanooga with 20 points and 8 rebounds. Chris Brown was the only other Moc in double figures with 10 points. UTC shot 34 percent from the field and an abysmal 19.4 from beyond the arc.

ETSU looked in control of the game, up 16 with 12:00 left, but in true Chattanooga fashion, having already survived deficits of 14 and 19 this tournament, they got right back in the game. Bryan Richardson nailed three three-pointers and Pugh added a long-distance shot to cut the lead to 5 at 63-58. But then Smith took over with the play of the game. With the shot clock at 1, Smith fumbled the ball 20 feet from the basket, picked it up and heaved it…count it. Several possessions later, Wadood also nailed a three-pointer from the top of they key, and the Buccaneers dance card was punched.

“I’m obviously very proud of our guys,” said Bartow. “They have been incredibly level-headed all year and have had their eyes on this moment all season. We think we can continue on and maybe have some success (in the NCAA Tournament).”

Smith, Fields, and Wadood were all named to the All-Tournament team for ETSU, while Champion and Pugh made it from UTC. Chattanooga finishes the season with a record 19-11 and loses three seniors, all starters in Champion, Ray Trowell, and Jason Rogan.

“I’m proud of my team,” said Chattanooga coach Jeff Lebo. “We had a chance to win the game without our leader. Champion is our only all-conference player and he is our leader. We played one of our best defensive battles all night. Tim Smith had that phenomenal play. With the shot clock at one second, he bobbled the ball, threw it and it went in.”

ETSU (27-5) heads off to the NCAA Tournament with hopes of a 13 or 14 seed based on their high RPI for a mid-major (projected to be in the 70’s or 80’s). It is the 6th conference title for the Buccaneers and their second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.

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