When you’re a mid-major conference team in leagues that often get receive just one automatic NCAA tournament bid in March, a win over a Power 5 Conference school is huge for a postseason resume.
But what about a road win over a Power 5 Conference program that last season won its league and advanced to the Final Four?
On Wednesday night in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, East Tennessee State made the most of its second of two true road games this season against Power 5 foes. The Buccaneers of the Southern Conference handed LSU a 74-63 loss in which Will Wade’s Tigers trailed nearly the entire second half by double digits.
This wasn’t a fluke. The 9-point underdog Bucs, now 10-2, beat the dog out of the home team which fell to 7-3.
“I’m speechless right now,” said East Tennessee junior guard Patrick Good, whose game-high 19 points was punctuated by 5-of-9 3-point swishing. “We put the preparation in. We stuck to the game plan. We played hard and we played tough. We just did the things it takes to get a Power Five win.”
It was a monumental victory and ETSU head coach Steve Forbes, a former University of Tennessee assistant, knew it. He invited the 20 or so ETSU fans who made the trip to Baton Rouge into the locker room afterwards to celebrate with the team and hear school president Brian Noland’s rousing speech.
“I thought we dominated the play-hard stats,” Forbes said. “The second half, we told them (the ETSU players) that they’re (LSU) going to make a run, they’re going to throw a punch and we’ve got to be able to take it. I really liked the way our guys handled the game for 40 minutes.”
The Bucs’ starting five, composed of a redshirt senior, two seniors and a two juniors five averaging 39.4 career starts each, systematically took apart the younger Tigers.
LSU ran into an ETSU team that battled every possession for every point and always made the extra pass to calmly find an open shooter.
The final stats reflected as such. ETSU, second last year in the country in rebound margin at plus 10.1, destroyed LSU on the boards with a 40-29 domination. The battling Bucs had a 19-7 advantage in offensive rebounds.
ETSU handled LSU in every category, outscoring the Tigers 16-12 in points off turnovers, 15-6 in second chance points, 40-32 in paint points, 20-15 in bench points and 6-3 in fast break points.
“Honestly, they played way harder than us,” said LSU senior guard Skylar Mays, who had 13 points and as he noted no rebounds.
LSU led 20-16 with 7:40 left in the first half when ETSU stomped on the accelerator. In a 22-9 run to close the half for a stunning 38-29 lead the break, the Bucs hit 9-of-12 field goals including 4-of-6 3’s.
If the Tigers had any hope of a second half comeback, ETSU jumped into a 1-3-1 defensive zone on the opening possession forcing one of LSU’s 15 turnovers. A few minutes later, the Bucs got on a 19-4 streak that inflated their lead to 22 points headed toward their largest advantage of 23 at 68-45 with 6:21 left.
Perhaps what bothered Wade the most about the loss was his team not fighting back until it was way too late.
“We have some new guys here who think it’s their God-given right that things are going to go well,” Wade said. “And some of these old guys are living off last year a little bit. This is a new team, everybody has got new roles.
“Our teams have always been kind of gritty and grimy and found a way to get things done. We’re just not like that right now. We don’t like it when things get hard.”
As much as the win sprinkled magic dust on ETSU’s NCAA tournament resume, the loss put a huge black mark against LSU.
“We’ve put our backs against the wall for the rest of the year,” Wade said. “This has major implications.”
While LSU travels to Los Angeles to play USC in Saturday’s Basketball Hall of Fame Classic in Staples Center, ETSU flew home to face Cleveland State on Saturday.
But after the win over LSU, the Bucs may not have needed a plane.
“You just dream of being on that stage and being on the floor with a Power Five school and beating them on national television,” said Good, who deftly slowed the pace in the final two minutes to force LSU fouls. “We just wanted to put ourselves on the map.”