- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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(Editor's note: The Atlantic Sun Conference championship in Nashville, Tenn., is the first stop in a three-day, three-bid tour as we check in with the recipients of some of the NCAA tournament's first automatic bids. Next up: St. Louis for the Missouri Valley Conference championship on Sunday and the Southern Conference championship in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Monday.)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Any agony that had festered from a year ago for East Tennessee State was melting as rapidly as an ice cube on a stove top by halftime Saturday in the championship game of the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament.
By the time senior guard Courtney Pigram served up a little Showtime with an alley-oop pass to fellow senior Kevin Tiggs on a breakaway eight minutes into the second half, all that remained of that ice cube was a pool of water.
The Bucs were well on their way to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years thanks to an 85-68 blistering of Jacksonville that was never in doubt.
And along the way, they exorcised a few ghosts at Allen Arena.
It was on this same floor last season where they fell 69-65 to Belmont in the semifinals of the Atlantic Sun tournament, losing a 10-point lead in the final six minutes and being on the wrong end of a controversial technical foul with 17 seconds left.
"That was unfortunate what happened last year, but this is a new day and a new team," said ETSU coach Murry Bartow, doing his best to downplay one of the darkest and most gut-wrenching moments in recent ETSU hoops history.
But as fate would have it -- as the Bucs celebrated at midcourt Saturday in one of those magical scenes that makes this time of year so much fun -- right there in the middle of the celebration was the guy in the middle of last year's controversy.
The smile on Kenyona Swader's face was unmistakable.
He was the one who was whistled for the technical foul last year after being fouled by Belmont's Andy Wicke and then swinging a wild elbow that missed.
Belmont went to the other end and made its free throws on the technical to go ahead by one point. But Swader, stunned that the technical had been called, missed on the front end of his one-and-one. Belmont escaped and went on to capture its third straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
All that was left for ETSU was to watch at home as Belmont came within inches of shocking Duke in some of the best drama March had to offer a year ago.
"We didn't even talk about last year, to be honest," said Bartow, whose Bucs ended Belmont's stranglehold on the Atlantic Sun's automatic bid Friday with an 88-74 win over the Bruins in the semifinals. "I was so happy that Kenyona was here. It was so good to see him here and be a part of this."
What he saw was an ETSU team that's playing its best basketball at just the right time. The Bucs (23-10) have now won five in a row, all by double digits.
"The last two weeks, we've been playing pretty good," said Bartow, whose legendary father, Gene, was on hand to watch the game. "We've been practicing pretty good. The mojo has been good. Everything has been good, and we've been winning.
"I just think they came out today on a mission and weren't going to be denied."
Any hope of Jacksonville getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1986 was pretty much gone by the midway point of the first half. The Bucs clamped down with their press and set sail on a 17-2 run to put the Dolphins away early.
And they did it while Pigram, the Atlantic Sun's first 2,000-point scorer since 1984, was held without a field goal until the opening minute of the second half. He buried a 3-pointer to pad the Bucs' lead to 18 points, and the rout was on.
All season, Pigram hasn't been shy when it comes to expressing what the NCAA tournament means to him.
It's the first goal he put on the board in the team locker room back in October, when the Bucs started practice. Former ETSU greats such as Keith "Mister" Jennings and Tim Smith had been a part of March Madness.
Pigram, with all of his points and all of his honors, had not until now.
"I've been [Atlantic Sun] Player of the Year," Pigram said. "I've been to the NIT, been all-conference, all-tournament and now the NCAA. This just tops it all."
Most of the ETSU players said they watched Belmont's near-upset of Duke last season.
Tiggs, who had 21 points Saturday, said he was cheering for Belmont at first, but then realized Duke was in trouble.
"I wanted [Belmont] to win because they're in the same conference as us," Tiggs said. "But then again, I like Duke."
Bartow's hoping for the same kind of draw Belmont got a year ago.
"Not that Duke is not a great team, but they're more of a finesse team," Bartow said. "It's really the matchup you get. I thought Belmont played a real good game, and Rick [Byrd] is a real good coach. I'm not downplaying what Belmont did, but the tournament is so much about matchups. If Belmont last year would have played Texas, when you saw that come up on the screen, you would have fallen out of your chair because matchups are so critical.
"That's what I'll be looking for, because we can play with a lot of people."
Chris Low covers college basketball and football for ESPN.com.