First-year coach Brittney Ezell is working to re-establish a winning culture at East Tennessee State following a few down seasons under the previous regime. After ending a three-game losing streak at Kennesaw State on Thursday, they look to get their first consecutive conference wins of the year at Mercer today (3 p.m., ESPN3).
Kennesaw, GA — Even though East Tennessee State was playing shorthanded, Tiana Burley came off the bench to spark them with 25 points and nine rebounds in their victory over Kennesaw State, 63-60.
Burley’s performance was huge as the Bucs (8-16, 4-9 A-Sun) were playing without starting point guard, Briana McQueen — she was dismissed from the team earlier this week. Also out for them was Cara Bowling (sickness) and Shawn Randall (broken hand).
“We’re three people down; unfortunately, Briana (McQueen) is no longer with us,” said East Tennessee State coach Brittney Ezell. “Shawn (Randall) is still out with a broken hand and Cara Bowling is back in Johnson City with pneumonia.
“We’re struggling a little bit right now with numbers, but for what we don’t have in numbers, we made up with effort and heart (Thursday). I thought the kids were really resilient. We didn’t play a great game but we played hard and that makes up for a lot of things.”
In a matchup between two teams fighting for postseason positioning, Kennesaw State (6-19, 4-10 A-Sun) started the game on a 17-6 run. Junior guard Bria Young led the way for the Owls as she nailed four three-pointers in that span.
East Tennessee State countered by bringing the 6-foot-3 Burley in the game, and clearly her size was the elixir needed to get the Bucs going. As Burley began to assert herself, her teammate, Shamauria Bridges picked up her offensive scoring as well.
By halftime, East Tennessee State had a 41-29 lead and were led by the aforementioned duo. Burley had 16 points and was perfect from the field (7-7). Bridges contributed 13 points going into the intermission.
The second half was a battle between two teams that weren’t going to give an inch.
Kennesaw State responded and closed the gap, they continued to chip away until they were down by just one point with 1.6 seconds left. But Serena Clark made the game saving block on the Owl’s Deandrea Sawyers, thus securing the victory for the Bucs.
Kristina Wells and Bria Young led the way for Kennesaw State with 23 and 12 respectfully. And while there were many contributors that led to the Bucs winning, it was Burley whose star shined the brightest on Thursday.
“What we told her after the game was, ‘Welcome to the party,’” said a laughing Ezell. “She’s been a little under the weather and fought some medical issues. And, today was the first day was the first time she really felt good.”
This win was paramount for the Bucs in their transition under new head coach Brittney Ezell. She is a familiar name in A-Sun circles as she was previously at Belmont — garnering success during her tenure there.
While the wins and losses haven’t come as frequently as Ezell would like, it’s palpable and obvious that East Tennessee State is starting to understand that winning is a “learned behavior.” It’s not just the things that are done in games that causes it, it’s the process before the actual game that constitutes winning.
Last night, with the Bucs being down so many players, they showed a resiliency that hasn’t been seen in years. In years past, East Tennessee State would’ve folded and figuratively packed up their tents. Yet, they didn’t do that, they actually made the plays down the stretch to win this game.
“After the performance at USC Upstate, we get 60 rebounds and score 60 points — and lose a ball game going away. We told them tonight, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ And it’s a change in mentality; it’s a change in mindset.”
And even though they only won by three points, the margin of victory for Ezell was much bigger – they are starting to learn what it takes to win. Mainly, they are starting to develop winning “habits.”
That’s all their head coach wants to them to understand, “winning is a learned behavior.”