Adversity can often test one’s strength.
Saturday afternoon at Cameron Hall in Lexington, VMI fought off adversity from all angles to pull out the emotional 85-79 win over East Tennessee State in a key Southern Conference basketball matchup.
First of all, the Keydets, 6-12 overall and 2-5 SoCon entering the Saturday matinee, were hit with a reality check that floor-leader and starting sophomore guard Q.J.Peterson was no longer with the team.
In a statement released by VMI prior to the game, it noted “Q.J. Peterson has been placed on medical furlough and is not currently attending VMI. He may return to VMI when he is able to fully participate in all cadet activities.” Peterson was the top scorer for the Keydets and second leading scorer in the Southern Conference, averaging 19.6 points per game. School official did not release the nature of Peterson’s medical situation.
Peterson’s absence led VMI head coach Duggar Baucom going to a five player platoon system, a move that kept the officials at the scorer’s table busy all afternoon with the wholesale substitutions.
“The guys picked it (who they would play with),” Baucom said of the unusual strategy. “We used two platoons of five, but with this setup you can’t keep them out there very long.”
The Keydets stayed in the game during the first half despite some abysmal shooting numbers that included 4-of-22 (18.2%) from behind-the-arc and 6-of-14 from the free throw line. The teams went to the halftime break tied at 32.
“We were fortunate to be tied at the half,” Baucom noted matter-of-factly.
Things began to look bleak for VMI to start the second half when the Bucs scored the first 13 points and still led by 14 at the 15:32 mark during the requisite media timeout point of the game. That’s when leadership came forth from senior guard Brian Brown.
“Brown got emotional in the huddle and challenged the team,” Baucom said.
The Keydets, with the ever-present sixth man in the form of the Corps of Cadets attending for the first time since the holiday break, took Brown’s command and started chipping away.
A stick back by freshman forward Fred Iruafemi at the 13:31 mark sliced the Buc lead to 49-46. Although ETSU was in the bonus with over 12 minutes left, VMI tied things at 54 with 11 minutes left, due in part to a perfect 3-for-3 from the charity stripe by junior guard Tim Marshall after he was fouled on a bomb from long-range.
A basket by sophomore Trey Chapman knotted things for the last time at 68 and VMI began to pull away courtesy of a contested 3-pointer from Brown and a trey from Chapman that put VMI up 79-71 The Keydet lead increased to 12 heading into the final minute and, although Buc A.J. Meriweather hit twice from behind the arc in the final 49 seconds, it was too little, too late for East Tennessee.
“It took everything tonight,” Baucom said of the win that broke a 10-game ETSU win streak against the Keydets. “I’m so proud of the way these guys played. It was Murphy’s Law until the last 15 minutes of the game. The 3-pointer late by Chapman gave us some separation we needed.”
“With Q.J. gone, it’s a total new beginning,” Baucom added. “It’s been a rough 48 hours. But, this is one of our biggest wins here. I told the guys the program is bigger than any one player.”
It was a balanced scoring attack from VMI, with Chapman and Iruafemi each scoring 16, while Brown netted 15 and Phil Anglade pouring in 10.
Senior Rashawn Rembert led the Bucs with a game-high 19 points, with SoCon scoring leader Jalen Riley being held to13 before fouling out late in the game.
VMI now looks forward to seven home game in its last 10 SoCon contests, beginning this coming Saturday, January 24th, when the all-military battle with The Citadel tips off at 1:00 pm in front of what will undoubtably be a raucous Corps of Cadets inside Cameron Hall.
– Bill Turner