CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The East Tennessee State basketball team has suddenly gotten a lot younger. For a night, at least, it didn’t seem to matter.
With senior guards Sheldon Cooley and Marcus Dubose suspended indefinitely after their arrest on drug charges, the Bucs rallied from 20 points down and beat Charleston Southern 59-57 in a wild finish Tuesday night.
“I’ve got close to 300 wins in my career, and I’ve never had a better win than the one we just had,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “To be down 20 on the road, to a good team, with the adversity we’ve had the last 24-36 hours ... I’m kind of overwhelmed with emotion.”
The flow began a day earlier with word that Cooley and Dubose, who share a campus apartment, had been arrested by the First Judicial Task Force in Johnson City. Cooley, of Tampa, Fla., was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, while Dubose, of Hartsville, S.C., was charged with possession of marijuana for resale and drug paraphernalia.
Both players were starters and led the Bucs in scoring in their last game.
It was the second run-in with police in the last nine months for Cooley. He was charged with filing a false police report after a reported burglary involving former teammates at his on-campus apartment last February and missed the last four games of the season.
Bartow clearly wasn’t pleased to be dealing with another legal episode.
“It’s an indefinite suspension and we’ll take it one day at a time,” he said. “Whenever you have player situations like this, you have to deal with them. It’s part of our world as college coaches.
“I’m pleased to say that in the 10 years I’ve been at ETSU, there have been very few problems.”
Bartow threw out a starting lineup in little CSU Field House that included three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior-college transfer who has played three games at ETSU. And it didn’t look good for that group early.
Charleston Southern sprinted out to a 10-2 lead and pushed its advantage to 35-15 after 15 minutes.
But Lester Wilson turned the tide single-handedly. The redshirt freshman from Knoxville tossed in 11 points in a 16-3 run that left the Bucs down by seven at half.
“Coach told me, ‘I need your best game” before we started, and I tried to give him that,” said Wilson. “With those guys out, I knew I had to step up and take their points.
“I didn’t even know we were down 20. I didn’t look at the scoreboard until halftime, and I knew it was a game.”
Wilson would lead all scorers, with 26 points, including 6 of 12 from 3-point range.
He picked up where he left off in the second half, scoring the first two baskets, and the game was on. The Bucs finally pulled ahead, 49-46, on a 3-pointer by Kinard Gilliard-Gadsden with 8:22 to play.
KGG, as he’s called, had sat out the last game with a sprained ankle. But playing in front of a lot of family and friends -- he’s from nearby Georgetown, S.C. -- he was clearly motivated.
Gadsden-Gilliard responded with 12 points and five rebounds in 35 minutes of action.
“It felt good because I had a lot of family and friends in the stands,” he said. “I wanted to play well. But without our guards, we lost a lot of leadership on the court there. We had to band together like brothers to pull this off.”
CSU, one of the favorites in the Big South Conference, still made it tough down the stretch, despite scoring just 19 points on 23 percent shooting in the second half.
Six straight points gave the Bucs -- yes, they’re also Bucs -- a 52-49 lead before Wilson answered with a 3-pointer. After a jumper by Arlon Harper, who led CSU with 13 points, Gadsden-Gilliard tied it with a jumper and Wilson rained down another three.
Three straight points by Mathiang Muo tied the score again, at 57 with 54 seconds left.
It ultimately came down to good work on the glass by ETSU. Wilson missed a runner, and Gadsden-Gilliard wasn’t able to stick back the miss. But John Walton went up and tipped in the game-winner with 3.7 seconds left.
Walton finished with eight points and eight rebounds.
“We had so many great performances,” said Bartow. “Lester was super. Kinard was huge. Petey (McClain) played all 40 minutes and had seven assists. And then John made the big play at the end.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the nine guys we had in uniform tonight.”
The feeling was drastically different in the other lockeroom. CSU coach Barclay Radebaugh had a hard time digesting this loss -- the fourth in four games against ETSU.
“It’s a very disappointing loss,” said Radebaugh, an ETSU graduate and former assistant coach. “It’s disappointing that we shot 23 percent in the second half.
We had great shots; they just didn’t go in. Maybe it was fatigue. We looked like a tired team in spots.”
Harper and Saah Nimley (10 points) were the only double-figure scorers for Charleston Southern. The Bucs were shot 28 percent from the field -- 8 of 27 from 3-point range. They outscored the Bucs 15-2 at the foul line and committed just seven turnovers.
ETSU now turns its attention to a Friday night matchup at Georgia. The Bucs beat the Bulldogs in their last meeting in Hawaii.