Despite visiting East Tennessee State University opening the second half on a 14-3 run, the Virginia Military Institute basketball team rallied past the Buccaneers and on to an 85-79 Southern Conference win at Cameron Hall, the first game back in front of the VMI Corps of Cadets in 2015.
Four Keydet (7-12, 3-5 SoCon) starters finished with double-digit points, paced by freshman Fred Iruafemi and Trey Chapman, who had 16 apiece. Iruafemi, who made his first career start and had a career-high points, finished one rebound shy of a double-double, grabbing seven defensive and two offensive boards, tying his career mark. Brian Brown knocked down 15 points while Phillip Anglade had 10 points to go with four of VMI’s 10 blocks.
VMI was without the services of sophomore guard Q.J. Peterson, who was placed on medical furlough prior to the game and is not currently attending VMI. Peterson may return to VMI when he is able to fully participate in all cadet activities.
ETSU (10-6, 5-3) had five players in double figures as Rashawn Rembert led the game with 19. Jalen Riley and A.J. Merriweather had 13 each, while Lester Wilson and Devin Harris had 12 and 11, respectively.
Part of VMI’s formula for success was rebound as the Keydets grabbed 55 boards, including 23 on offense, that led to 23 second chance points. ETSU managed 48 rebounds, paced by Harris’ 14, including 10 on defense alone. Iruafemi and Craig Hinton each had nine rebounds for VMI, helping the Keydets snap a 10-game losing streak against ETSU, dating back to 1999.
The Keydets, who played just their fourth home game since December, struggled to find the bottom of the net in the first half, going 11 of 36 from the field (30.6 percent), including a cold four-of-22 from three-point range. But VMI rallied to shoot nearly 40 percent in the second half, canning 16 of its 41 shots from the field.
The Buccaneers finished with 24-of-66 made shots, going 39.5 percent (15-38) in the second half. ETSU, which is ranked second in the Southern Conference in made three-pointers per game (10.9) was sharp from three-point range, hitting 11 of 29 attempts (37.9 percent).
Neither team shot well at the free throw line; the Keydets made just 22 of 37 attempts (59.5 percent) while ETSU hit 20 of 29 shots from the line (69.0 percent). Julian Eleby scored all five of his points for VMI at the charity stripe, all in the final 1:15 to ice the league win for VMI.
VMI brought strong pressure against the Buccaneers, helping the Keydets split the regular season series with ETSU after falling 98-88 in Johnson CIty on Jan. 2. VMI forced 25 Buccaneer turnovers, coming up with 14 steals and 22 points off of turnovers. Joining Anglade with multiple blocks were Iruafemi and Jarid Watson, who had two each, helping VMI to its third game with double-digit blocks this season.
The Keydets finished with 14 assists as Iruafemi, Brown, Anglade and Eleby had three dishes each. Tim Marshall chipped in one while going six-of-seven at the line and snaring seven rebounds. Chapman had five steals for VMI as well, while Iruafemi finished with a trio.
It was a back-and-forth game as the teams trading the lead eight times and tied on 12 occasions. VMI jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first two and a half minutes before the Buccaneers tied things for the first time. The top two three-point scoring teams in the Southern Conference traded threes as the contest was tight in the early goings.
VMI, which hosted ETSU for the first time since February, 2003, took a 14-10 lead with 13:25 to play in the first half behind a Watson jumper, holding onto the lead until the game’s fourth tie with 11:23 in the first half behind a Rembert three-pointer. The Keydets clung to narrow two and three-point leads until ETSU snagged the advantage, 23-22, with 6:09 on clock.
The Keydets wrested the lead back and went up by three on Marshall free throws, eventually building a six-point advantage with 4:24 to play on a Christian Burton three pointer. But the Buccaneers came back to tie the contest 31-31 with 2:50 left during a cold stretch for VMI, which did not hit a field goal over the final 4:24 of the first half, which ended tied 32-32.
VMI’s cold streak carried over into the second half as ETSU went from tied 32-32 to 49-35 over the first five minutes and scored the first 13 points of the second half. But the Keydets slowly chipped away at the Buccaneer lead with pressure defense and ETSU errors, pulling within three, 49-46, as Iruafemi scored with 13:36 left.
The Buccaneers tried to rebuild the lead but VMI tied the game for an eighth time, 54-54, nearing the halfway mark of the second. It would be another five minutes before VMI regained the lead, 64-63, for the first time since the 46-second mark of the first half. The Keydets took the lead for good with 4:28 left in regulation and eventually built to a 12-point advantage on two of Eleby’s free throws. ETSU challenged but never got within five over the final minute of play.
VMI plays its final road game of January next Thursday as the Keydets head to Chattanooga, Tenn. for a SoCon game with the Chattanooga Mocs. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. Eastern at the Mocs’ McKenzie Arena.
QUOTES – VMI Head Coach Duggar Baucom
“The guys competed wholeheartedly today. We came out flat in the second half and we had to take a timeout to get them back in focus. I thought the last 14 minutes was as hard as we have ever played here and we did some really good things.”
“We still weren’t perfect by any means but I am proud of them and told them that we have to be bigger than any two or three people on the team – it’s the program. I thought we really stepped up and I thought Fred (Iruafemi) was tremendous. Trey Chapman was amazing and I am just proud of all of them.”
“We clawed our way back in the second half and jacked up the pressure a little bit. That started with Fred Iruafemi on the ball and his shift. He did an amazing job on big, strong, secure traps and getting deflections and making things happen. I thought everyone who took the floor made a contribution today.”
“They know now as they just beat a really good team – one of the upper echelon teams in the Southern Conference – and this could give them confidence.”
“We got them (ETSU) out of what they wanted to do. They are not used to making 25 turnovers or playing that fast and I thought our tempo was the difference in the game.”