Sam Chandler, Managing Editor
Samford couldn’t stop T.J. Cromer.
The East Tennessee State University senior guard poured in 41 points on an 11-of-18 shooting performance to carry his third-seeded Buccaneers to an 81-72 victory over seventh-seeded Samford on Sunday, March 5, in the Southern Conference Tournament semifinal.
Cromer’s outburst spurred ETSU to Monday’s conference final, where it knocked off top-ranked UNC-Greensboro to claim the SoCon title and punch its ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulldogs watched Monday’s game from home, their season ended by the semifinal defeat.
“Defensively, I thought they came out and pressured us early on,” Samford third-year head coach Scott Padgett said after the loss. “We settled a lot. Once we settled on some tough shots, I think we allowed that to affect our defensive intensity.”
Samford failed to duplicate the fast start it used to upset second-seeded Furman in Saturday’s quarterfinal. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 13-point lead midway through the opening stanza against the Paladins and then held on for a 67-63 win.
Samford struggled to generate that type of offensive output at the beginning of the semifinal, as it trailed the Bucs by as many as 19 points in the first half.
Credit Cromer. He sank six 3-pointers and racked up 25 points in the first 20 minutes. ETSU led 41-28 at the break.
“Tonight, he got us going. Forty-one points is a special night,” Bucs head coach Steve Forbes said of Cromer. “Sometimes when you play these kind of games, I think you need someone to step up like that, and he did that.”
Samford junior guard Christen Cunningham posted a special performance in his own right, but it wasn’t enough to close the gap. He canned a career-high 30 points on a 13-of-20 shooting performance. The bulk of those points came in the second half.
Cunningham’s impressive stat line, however, was dwarfed by his team’s sobering defeat. The Bulldogs trailed by double digits for nearly 33 of the contest’s 40 minutes, including all but 26 seconds of the second half. A late run made the game appear closer than it was.
“When we finally said, ‘All right, we have to lay it all out on the line,’ we went to a full out press,” Padgett said. “I thought our guys did great, but at that point, you have to play the perfect game to win.”
The Bulldogs (19-15) finished the season with a winning record for the first time since 2008, when they went 18-16. That’s a marked improvement from Padgett’s first two seasons at the the program’s helm.
Samford went 14-19 in 2015-2016 and 13-19 in 2014-2015.
The Bulldogs’ upward trend wasn’t lost on Cunningham following the semifinal, but the sting of defeat dampened the mood.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” he said, “but it’s not the step we wanted.”