JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – All things considered, East Tennessee State didn’t play too badly on Thursday night. Lester Wilson had a career night with 31 points. The team connected on 14 three-pointers and hit all 18 free throws they attempted. The Buccaneers (16-13, 9-7 Atlantic Sun) did one thing wrong though. They let Jarvis Haywood find a rhythm.
Behind 24 second-half points from the Jacksonville star, the Dolphins (10-16, 6-9 A-Sun) shot past the Bucs after the halftime break and earned a 91-86 victory inside Swisher Gymnasium on the night that the venerable home of JU basketball showed off its face lift for the first time.
A.J. Merriweather opened the scoring less than 10 seconds in with a baseline jumper for East Tennessee State, but Jacksonville responded with a 7-0 outburst punctuated by a three-point play from Vince Martin for an early 7-2 lead. The Buccaneers would have their own answer however, coming back with a 10-2 run and soon opening up their largest lead of nine at 30-21 by hitting their first five three-pointers and six of their first eight.
Jacksonville came back at ETSU with five straight, the first on a Martin layup off a Haywood feed, followed by Sam Hunt’s third triple of the first half, slicing the deficit to 30-26. As the Dolphins struggled for stops in the early going, it was the outside shooting of Hunt that kept the team within striking distance. Still, when Wilson corralled an airballed three-pointer in the final moments of the half and laid it in just before the horn, the Buccaneers led by a count of 41-34 and the Dolphins would once again have to play from behind, just as they did the first time the two teams met in January.
Held to four points in the first half on only four shot attempts, Haywood began seeking out the basketball early on in the second half. He answered two Rashawn Rembert hoops with buckets of his own in the opening two minutes, and an old-fashioned three-point play three minutes into the second stanza made it 46-46 and brought JU back even for the first time since it was tied at nine. The next time down the floor, Haywood knocked home a trey and then assisted on a Javon Dawson transition basket that put the Dolphins out in front, 52-51.
ETSU was comfortable playing at JU’s pace and wasn’t fazed by the rally, reeling off five straight points to retake a 56-52 advantage. Once again, Haywood put the Dolphins on his back, nailing a jumper to kick off an 11-0 stretch in which Hunt knocked down his fourth three-pointer of the game and RJ Slawson knocked in a pair at the stripe to give Jacksonville a 63-56 lead at the halfway point of the second half.
ETSU was far from done and it was Wilson leading the charge. The sophomore entered the night shooting just 30 percent from long range, but Swisher Gym suited him just fine. A trey ended the Jacksonville run and made it 63-59, and less than four minutes later he’d be at it again, connecting on another deep effort to give the Bucs the lead back at 71-70 with six minutes remaining. After shouldering the scoring load for much of the half, some other Dolphins backed Haywood up and allowed JU to regain command. Haywood fed Keith McDougald in the right corner and the senior found the bottom of the net for a 75-73 lead with 4:50 to play. On the next Jacksonville possession, Martin buried a triple for a five-point lead and an East Tennessee State timeout with 4:20 remaining.
Out of the timeout, Wilson got a friendly roll on a straight-away jump shot to cut the lead back down to three and Martin missed a three-pointer on the other end, but Haywood sprinted across the court to track down the offensive rebound for the Dolphins and McDougald made the most of the extra opportunity by canning a three for an 81-75 lead with just over three minutes to play.
The drama wasn’t over just yet. Wilson was fouled on the next trip down the floor and swished all three free throws. After McDougald put JU back up by five, Wilson converted a four-point play as Jacksonville got too aggressive on a defensive close-out. With less than 90 seconds remaining, the Dolphins led by a score of 83-82 and the game seemed destined for a repeat of the game in Johnson City in which a bucket inside the final 10 seconds decided the winner.
Haywood was having none of that. Quickly back down the floor, he fearlessly put up a three-pointer and hit it for a four-point lead. Jacksonville then got a huge stop and hit one of two free throws for an 87-82 edge with 30 seconds to go. Ice water in his veins, Martin hit all four of his free throws in the final seconds to keep the Bucs at bay and give the Fins a vital victory in the league race.
Haywood ended the night with 28 points, knocking down 9-of-10 shot attempts in the second half. Martin added 17 points, a personal-best in a JU uniform for the graduate point guard. McDougald ended the night with 13 points, while Hunt went for 12 on a career-high four three-pointers. Rembert came into the night as the second-leading scorer in the A-Sun and the best in the conference from three-point range, but was held to nine points on 1-of-9 shooting from downtown.
“These guys are still fighting and we made a lot of key shots down the stretch,” said Head Coach Cliff Warren. “Tonight we went to the glass against their zone defense and were rewarded with a lot of second opportunities.”
With the victory, the magic number is down to one for Jacksonville to clinch a berth in the Atlantic Sun Tournament. A win in any of the remaining regular season contests or a loss from Kennesaw State in any of its final four games takes the Owls out of the running. The Dolphins also climb a half-game ahead of Stetson – who are in action tomorrow night at home against KSU – and pull them within a game of Lipscomb for the sixth spot in the conference.
Jacksonville closes out its home schedule on Saturday afternoon as the Dolphins celebrate Senior Day for Dawson, Martin, McDougald and Slawson. It will be another chance for fans to come out and enjoy some free hoops as Sea Best Seafood hosts its second straight Free Game. JU battles USC Upstate – 81-70 winners over North Florida tonight – at 3:15 p.m. following the women’s contest between Jacksonville and Stetson.
- For the first time this season, Jacksonville trailed at the half but came back to win.
- The 57 points that the Dolphins scored in the second half are the most by the team under Cliff Warren. The previous record had been 56 in a game against Campbell on Feb. 16, 2009.
- JU’s 29-of-53 performance from the field (.547) was the team’s second-best game of the season, trailing only the .651 the Dolphins shot against Kennesaw State on Jan. 1, a game also played inside Swisher Gym.
- East Tennessee State’s 14 three-pointers in the contest were the most given up in the Warren Era. On seven previous occasions, opponents had hit 13 threes in a single game.
- In Warren’s nine years, ETSU became only the second opponent to hit all of its free throws against the Dolphins. Bethune-Cookman was 22-for-22 on Dec. 30, 2010, but JU won that game as well, 67-60.
- The 50 points scored off the bench by the Buccaneers were 12 more than by any opponent this season. Wilson’s 31 points were the most given up by the Dolphins to a single player this season.
- One game after matching his career high of 16 points, Vince Martin set a new high with 17 points, hitting all seven of his free throw attempts.
- Playing on his 19th birthday, Sam Hunt set a new career high with four made three-pointers.