ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- T.J. Cromer looked down at the white basketball net hanging around his neck.
"It's my new favorite necklace," the senior guard said with a wide smile.
Cromer scored 23 points, and East Tennessee State beat top-seeded UNC Greensboro 79-74 to win the Southern Conference tournament championship on Monday night.
The Buccaneers (27-7) rallied in the second half to secure their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2010.
Francis Alonso made five 3-pointers and scored 28 points for UNC Greensboro (25-9), which beat East Tennessee State twice during the regular season and led by seven at halftime. R.J. White had 23 points before fouling out in the final minute.
UNC Greensboro had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds after an unlikely 3-pointer by big man Jordy Kuiper and a steal in the backcourt. But Alonso's 3-point attempt from the left wing rattled out, and A.J. Merriweather knocked down two clinching free throws.
"I thought it was going in," ETSU coach Steve Forbes said of Alonso's 3-point attempt. "I was like, 'Well at least we're going to overtime.'"
The Spartans were unable to stop the Buccaneers down the stretch. ETSU shot 59 percent from the field in the second half. Merriweather had 11 of his 13 points after halftime, including seven straight during a crucial 17-4 run.
"Coach preached before the game we have to be gritty and tough and grind it out," Cromer said. "We knew we had to pick up the intensity and we knew we had 20 minutes to lay our guts out if we wanted to come out victorious."
Cromer was 6-for-13 from the field and 11-for-11 at the free throw line. The tournament's most outstanding player also had 41 points in ETSU's semifinal win over Samford.
Tevin Glass finished with 12 points and nine rebounds, helping the Buccaneers to their first Southern Conference title since 2004. They avenged a loss to Chattanooga in the SoCon championship game last season.
"We lost by six last year and we didn't want to have that sour taste in our mouths," Cromer said.
It was a disappointing end to the season for the Spartans, who were looking to end a 16-year NCAA tournament drought.
"I really hurt for our kids right now, for our seniors most of all," coach Wes Miller said. "I hurt for Diante [Baldwin] and R.J. I told the team in the locker room, I wish there was something I could do or say to make it better. This one really hurts. It's going to hurt forever."
The Buccaneers were perfect from the foul line in their biggest game of the season, making all 19 free throws.
ETSU: Forbes, who coached under Gregg Marshall at Wichita State, said he believes the Buccaneers are built to win an NCAA tournament game because they have size and quality guards. "That's something that Coach Marshall taught me is you have to have some centers when you get in the tournament," Forbes said.
UNCG: The Spartans went through a stretch in the second half where simple shots simply wouldn't fall for them. They shot 37 percent after the break.
ETSU: The Buccaneers last played in the NCAA tournament in 2010 and lost 100-71 to Kentucky.
UNCG: Picked to finish fifth in the Southern Conference, the Spartans still have a berth in the NIT by virtue of winning the conference's regular-season title. "We're not done playing yet," White said. "We've still got the NIT. This one hurts, but we can't let that take away from the special season we've had."