East Tennessee Takes Southern

CAROUSEL - After yesterdays scrub, the Ares I-X rocket stands ready for launch at Pad 39B just before sunrise at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
AP Photo/John Raoux
At 5-foot-9, East Tennessee's Tim Smith has always heard the taunts about how he's too little to play basketball.

Now, the Southern Conference freshman of the year will get to hear the comments in the NCAA tournament.

Smith scored 25 points to lead the Bucs to a 97-90 victory over Chattanooga in the Southern Conference tournament championship game Saturday.

East Tennessee (20-10) won its first league title since a run of four straight crowns from 1989-92.

Early on, he listened to the Chattanooga pep band calling, "Little Fella," over and over again. Smith simply smiled. He knew he'd be the one chanting at the end.

"That inspired me," said Smith, named the tournament's MVP. "It made me play better."

If that's all it takes, East Tennessee's NCAA tournament opponent better tell its band to keep quiet.

"He's a big time player, made a lot of big shots for them," Chattanooga coach Jeff Lebo said. "I thought that was the difference."

It's East Tennessee's fifth trip to the NCAA tournament. And if these Bucs are anything like their past NCAA teams, it could be a wild time for some high seed.

They nearly defeated No. 1 seed Oklahoma in 1989, losing 72-71. They came back two years later to give seventh-seeded Iowa a scare in a 76-73 loss.

In 1992, their last visit before now, the Bucs defeated third-seeded Arizona before losing to Michigan's "Fab Five."

Can this team do some damage when the tournament begins?

"I'm thinking about a steak and a cigar. Those are my priorities right now," said East Tennessee coach Ed DeChellis, in his seventh season.

With Smith, anything's possible.

DeChellis remembers watching Smith in high school continually getting an ugly, floating shot in over people a lot taller.

"I kept wondering how he did it," DeChellis said.

"I've been short all my life," Smith said simply. "I had to find a way to score."

It was another disappointing end for Chattanooga (21-9) and Lebo, its first-year coach. The Mocs lost in the tournament finals to North Carolina Greensboro two years ago and Lebo, then coach at Tennessee Tech, lost to Murray State in the 2002 finals of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.

"We fell short of our goal to get to the NCAAs, but probably no one expected us to be here," Lebo said.

The Mocs were also looking for the ultimate Southern Conference basketball double-double — their women's team won the league title with a 66-52 victory over Georgia Southern earlier Saturday at the North Charleston Coliseum.

For a while, it looked like a remarkable comeback would save things for the Mocs, who wiped out East Tennessee's 55-42 lead in a four-minute stretch of the second half. When Jason Rogan broke free for an uncontested slam, Chattanooga had finished a 17-4 run and tied the game at 59-all.

It was tied for the finial time at 66-66 when Chattanooga's Ashley Champion made a free throw with 10:19 to go.

But Smith and Zakee Wadood combined for a 7-0 run that put East Tennessee ahead for good.

Wadood hit a long 3-pointer, Smith floated in close for a basket and Wadood had a layin.

"It was tough. I just told myself that I had to make a play," Wadood said. "I think Coach wanted me to drive, but Champion was playing off me so I tried a 3 and made it."

Chattanooga got within 93-90 on Champion's 3-pointer with 25 seconds left, but Ryan Lawson followed with two free throws and the Mocs were done.

Wadood had 17 points and freshman reserve Brad Nuckles had 16 points and 10 rebounds for East Tennessee.

Champion and Josh Rogan led Chattanooga with 27 points each.

The Bucs took control during a 25-13 first-half run where Lawson had three 3-pointers and Smith two. When Smith closed the charge with his second from behind the arc, East Tennessee was ahead 42-32 with 4:14 left in the half.