MIAMI SHORES, Fla. -- Barry men's basketball coach Butch Estes likened the start of league play to a buckle-your-seats type of environment.
"If you're on an airplane, the seatbeat light would be on the entire time," Estes said. "Here we are in conference play."
Barry held on to beat Tampa in the Sunshine State Conference opener Saturday, 73-71, in a tight game that changed hands eight times. The Buccaneers improved to 5-0 overall, 1-0 in the SSC. Tampa, playing without leader Da'Marcko Foster, fell to 5-2, 0-1.
Savad Garner scored with 2:11 remaining to give Barry a seven-point lead. Tampa's Tyler Zacur hit a three-pointer to cut it to 68-64 at the 1:35 mark. Then it turned into a free throw contest for the Bucs, who were sent to the line 31 times.
Barry's Deric Hill and Magne Fivelstad both split a pair from the line inside the last minute as the Bucs clung to a six-point lead. Jordan Davis sank a pair for the Spartans before Hill hit one of two again. Ryan Kidd's layup pulled Tampa within three with 15 seconds left.
After hill sank two free throws three seconds later, Kidd buried another 3-pointer with seven ticks left to pull the Spartans within a bucket. Hill missed two free throws, both Jordan Davis couldn't get his final shot to go, and Barry survived a wild finish.
"I've got to give a lot of credit to Tampa. I really respect those guys," Estes said. "We were able to come out with just enough plays to win the game."
Hill finished with 20 points and nine assists. He was 10 of 18 from the free throw line.
"Tampa did a good job studying us," Hill said. "Nobody expected (much of) us. We were picked last in the conference."
Barry won the rebound battle, 43-33. Fivelstad grabbed 10 rebounds, and had four blocks, having to sit with foul trouble.
"I thought Magne was just tremendous on the boards," Estes said.
Barry led 56-50 with 6:47 to play, but a foul on Hill and technical foul on Estes gave Davis five cracks from the free throw line, where he made three to pull the Spartans within three. That set up a back-and-forth game until Adrian Gonzalez converted a three-point play with 2:41 to go to put the Bucs ahead by seven.
"I apologize for the technical foul," Estes would say later. "You got to give credit to the players. They overcame poor coaching."
Barry shot 55 percent from the field in the second half, overcoming a 35-34 deficit at the break. The Bucs, who built their largest lead at nine early in the game, found conference play is much tougher than they'd been experiencing in the non-conference season so far.
"Every win in this league is crucial," Bucs assistant coach Ryan Saunders said. "It's tough, it's a grind-it-out game. We're lucky to get a win. Every game's going to be a battle."
The Buccaneers shot 20 of 31 from the stripe. Tampa was 16 of 24.
"We struggled today," Saunders said of Barry's late free throw deficiencies. "If we hit a few of those free throws, it might not have been as close."
Gonzalez had 11 points and seven rebounds in 13 minutes.
"Adrian was huge off the bench," Saunders said. "For a freshman coming in the game, the first conference game, the things that he does are huge. He attacks the glass, he's got a nice touch around the basket, and he's a good spark off the bench."
Garner finished with 14 points and six rebounds, and Juan Ferrales 12 points and five boards. Davis had 17 points and 10 assists. Eric Moraes, who had three back-door-buckets, two on dunks, finished with 19 points and nine rebounds for the Spartans.
Both teams shot 29 percent from beyond the three-point line. Tampa's bench outscored Barry, 23-18.
"We're starting to get our rotation down," Estes said. "We're happy to be where we are."