With Johnson City nicknamed “Little Chicago” because of its status as a reported hideout of famed gangster Al Capone, the hometown Bucs (3-2) used a strong second half to defeat the team from the Windy City 86-61 at Freedom Hall Civic Center.
The win set up a matchup with Sam Houston State (3-3) in Tuesday’s Cayman Islands Classic championship game at 7 p.m. The Cougars (0-6) battle Jackson State (0-4) in the consolation game at 4 p.m.
Jeromy Rodriguez led ETSU with 18 points and 12 rebounds, and Tray Boyd III had 18 points, going 6-for-10 behind the 3-point arc. Patrick Good counted four 3-pointers in his 14 points, Daivien Williams scored 10 and Mladen Armus just missed a double-double with nine points and 11 rebounds.
“We just had to go out there and play hard,” Rodriguez said. “In the beginning, we didn’t play that hard, but we came back and played hard in the second half. Sometimes you take teams too lightly. We’ve got to get out there and grind no matter who we’re playing.”
Anthony Harris had 20 points and Rob Shaw 18 to lead Chicago State, which had no answer for the Bucs’ depth. ETSU had a 38-0 advantage in scoring off the bench.
ETSU coach Steve Forbes thought the win hinged on his team’s better overall effort in the second half. Down 28-27 at the intermission, the Bucs outscored the Cougars 59-33 over the final 20 minutes.
“We didn’t play well during certain stretches of the game,” Forbes said. “We started the game hot and then ... I didn’t see that with this team because I know this team can really make baskets. We just haven’t shown it consistently. We have in spurts. We have some things that need to be corrected, but there is a quick turnaround with a game tomorrow and a game Saturday, so these guys are learning on the fly.”
ETSU kept letting the ball fly, sinking 10 of 27 shots from 3-point range despite hitting just 3 of 15 in the first half.
“We were taking good shots in the first half, so you just have to keep shooting,” Boyd said. “You have to have that shooter’s mentality because they’re going to fall sooner or later.”
ETSU hit 20 of 23 (87 percent) of its free-throw attempts .
The Bucs played without starting wing Bo Hodges, who sat with a groin injury for a second straight game. He’s also likely out Tuesday.
ETSU built an early 23-11 advantage before the Cougars hit back-to-back 3-point shots as part of an 15-1 run that gave them a 26-24 lead on Shaw’s short jumper in the paint.
The Bucs didn’t hit a field goal over the final 8:40 of the first half.
Despite the win, Forbes wasn’t happy with the overall performance, the offensive woes in the first half and the Cougars shooting 52 percent in the second half.
“The numbers look good, but I don’t feel that tonight,” he said. “Give our guys credit, I’ve seen some teams lose that game. I want the (offensive) numbers in the first half when the game is on the line.
“Just to win is not enough sometimes,” Forbes added. “It’s how you win.”
ETSU dominated the inside again, winning the rebounding battle 37-21 — 13-5 on the offensive end. The advantage led to the Bucs outscoring the Cougars 18-0 in second-chance points.
Forbes said rebounding is the most consistent thing his team has done this season.
SAM HOUSTON STATE ROLLS
Up by just one at halftime, the Bearkats scored 11 unanswered points midway through the second half to beat Jackson State 75-60 in the earlier Cayman Islands Classic matchup.
RJ Smith, Kai Mitchell and Chad Bowie scored a dozen points each to lead Sam Houston (3-3), which also got 11 points from Bubba Furlong.
Chris Howell had 13 points and 12 rebounds for Jackson State (0-4), which also got a 13- point effort from Venji Walls.
The Bearkats held advantages of 40-31 in rebounds and 15-9 in assists.