JACKSONVILLE, Ala. – For Tennessee Tech basketball coach
Mike Sutton, March Madness unofficially started on Saturday.
His Golden Eagles were not concerned with the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament next week. Instead, Tech faced a one-game, all-or-nothing battle at Jacksonville State just to get into the tournament.
It took a school record at the free throw line, but now, after clobbering the Gamecocks 91-74 in Pete Mathews Coliseum Saturday afternoon, March Madness can officially begin for Sutton’s squad.
"It was like Texas hold 'em, we were all in,” Sutton said. “We were in tournament mode. For us, it's survive and advance. We made it. You have to earn your spot in the OVC tournament, and we earned it."
Sutton said his team’s game plan was to attack the Gamecocks.
"We did a good job of attacking inside,” Sutton said. “We scored a lot of points in the paint. We wanted to the get ball to the rim and get to the free throw line, and we did a great job of that."
The Golden Eagles set a school record by hitting 96.7 percent at the free throw line, going 29-for-30. It broke the previous record of 95.7 percent for a 22-for-23 effort against Southern Miss in 1984-85.
"I was in charge of coaching free throws tonight," Sutton joked afterward.
Tech (12-17/6-12 OVC) claimed the No. 8 seed for the OVC Tournament, and will advance to play at No. 1 seed (UT Martin or Morehead State) next Tuesday night. For Jacksonville State (11-17/5-13), the season is finished.
Daniel Northern led Tech with 22 points and eight rebounds, including 10-for-10 at the free throw line.
“I had a nightmare about coming down here,” said Northern. “Last year I was 4-of-14 from the free throw line, and I said I would not miss a free throw, especially when it’s a playoff game.”
Kevin Murphy had 21 points and six rebounds, hitting all six of his charity tosses.
Tech also got double-digit scoring from Will Barnes with 12 points, and a solid effort from Elijah Muhammad with seven points, seven rebounds and six assists.
“We had some good practices coming into this game,” Muhammad said. “We all knew how bad we needed this win.”
DJ Lindsay added seven points in nine minutes, and Bassey Inameti had eight points, three rebounds and two blocked shots.
"The biggest asset we have is depth," Sutton said.
The Golden Eagles connected on 53.6 percent (14-for-29) from the field, overcoming a 2-for-12 performance from long range. Tech also had a 36-27 margin in rebounds.
"We have great expectations of our experienced players, and Daniel and Ra’Shun (Bryant) did a great job tonight," Sutton said. Bryant stepped in and played 12 crucial minutes when Northern slipped into foul trouble before halftime.
Jacksonville State had balanced scoring, with four players in double figures. Nick Murphy led with 18 and five rebounds, going 10-for-14 at the free throw line. Jeremy Bynum scored 15, Stephen Hall had 14 and Brandon Crawford contributed 12 points.
After building a 12-point first half lead with four minutes to play in the first half, the Golden Eagles had to withstand a 9-0 JSU run that made it a tight contest heading toward halftime. When DeAndre Bray made two free throws with four seconds to play, the Golden Eagles settled for a two-point lead at the break, 43-41.
The lead was sliced to one point early in the second half, but JSU never caught up, and Tech used a 7-0 run to regain momentum four minutes into the period. The Golden Eagles got their margin to double digits when Alfred Jones hit two free throws to make it 64-54 with 9:24 to play.
Hitting 59 percent of their shots in the second half, the Golden Eagles continued to build on their lead and managed their largest lead of the contest with 4:28 remaining. That’s when Inameti’s jumper made it 81-62.
Tech and JSU met in the first OVC game of the regular season (on December 6 in Cookeville), and the last. The Gamecocks claimed a 16-point win in the first game, and 84 days later Tech avenged the loss, completing a 33-point turnaround with the 17-point win.