NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Bittersweet defeat might be the only way to describe Tennessee Tech's championship match-up with the Eagles of Morehead State on Saturday night. While the Golden Eagles were playing for a chance at the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003, and garnered three of the five all-tournament team spots, falling short of their primary goal for the season was nothing short of heartbreaking.
After pulling off an upset over the defending OVC Champions, the Racers of Murray State, the Golden Eagles – led by all-tournament honorees Zac Swansey, Kevin Murphy and Jud Dillard – came into Saturday's match-up against Morehead State brimming with enthusiasm, confidence and most of all – momentum.
But Demonte Harper, Kenneth Faried and their 20-plus point performances were there to thwart that momentum, as they and the rest of the Eagles held Tech at bay, allowing the score to tie just three times within the first five minutes and never relinquishing their initial lead en route to a 80-73 win.
The Eagles spent the first 13 minutes of the game building to their largest lead of the first half, 12 points with 6:43 left to play. Tech was able to come within two points three times within the first seven minutes, but the shots weren't falling for the Golden Eagles as well as they hoped.
Led by Murphy with 10 points, the Golden Eagles shot 12-34 for an accuracy of 35.3% on the half to Morehead's 46.2%. Notorious for dominating the glass against most of their opponents, the Golden Eagles struggled in the first period of play, snatching 12 boards to the Eagles' 26. On the game, Tech was out-rebounded by 20 boards, 47-27. Yet that didn't seem to be the cause of their trouble, as they only suffered a +6 margin in second chance points.
Murphy tied the game at seven-all with a three-pointer with 16:13 on the clock for the final time before a 16 -7 run to the Eagle's 12-point lead started on a lay-in by Harper, tournament MVP, with 14:28 left in the first half. He put up seven points to fuel the run, 14 and six rebounds on the first half to lead the team in scoring, while Faried notched 11 and seven on the half.
After being down 12, the Golden Eagles were able to cut the lead to seven, setting the score at 34-27 as the teams headed into the locker room. They continued to chip away at the lead, cutting it to three over the first five minutes of the second half. Murphy hit two free throws and a lay-up, while Dillard also made two from the line. Liam McMorrow's tip-in at 16:13 cut the lead to four, and his 1-for-2 effort from the charity stripe put the score at 39-36 with 14:57 left to play.
A momentum swing favored Morehead though, when just seconds later Terrence Hill hit a three, and made a steal on the inbound pass that resulted in a tip-in for Harper. And just like that, the lead went from three to eight, and the momentum continued from there.
Morehead went on a 20-8 run over approximately seven minutes to notch a 15-point lead, their largest of the evening, with 8:40 left to play. They matched this lead three more times before allowing the Golden Eagles back into the game in the final minutes.
Down 15 with 3:41 to play, Tech scored 12 points to Morehead's one, six of which came off of two threes by Murphy, putting the score at 69-65 with 1:49 to play. Four was the closest that Tech could come though. Morehead climbed back to a 77-67 lead with 32 seconds to play, Tech battled to within five with 11 seconds to go on a three by Chase Dunn, and time expired with a final score of 80-73 after two free-throws by Harper.
Harper finished with 27 points and 11 rebounds on the game, logging one of the team's two double-doubles. Faried earned the other, netting 24 and snagging 15 to lead the team in rebounds. Hill joined his two teammates in double-figure scoring with 16 points.
Murphy notched his second 30-point performance of the season, and contributed four rebounds as well. Dillard finished with 10 and seven, while Swansey recorded nine points and six assists.
The efforts of all three Golden Eagles over the course of the tournament earned them each a spot on the five-member all-tournament team, where they were joined by Faried and Harper.
"We are extremely disappointed; our guys are heartbroken as I am," said Tech head coach Mike Sutton. "We had some opportunities; you know we didn't do some things that we needed to do. But certainly, Morehead had a lot to do with that. You certainly have to congratulate them with the way their guys played with Demonte (Harper) and (Kenneth (Faried). When they secured Kenneth Faried, it has helped them to two Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championships. So, congratulations to Coach (Donnie) Tyndall and Morehead State.
"The most important thing in our program is the players. And these three guys sitting in front of you (Jud Dillard, Kevin Murphy, Zac Swansey) are really important to us," Sutton continued. "The great thing is that they all return next year. I couldn't be more proud of the efforts of our kids this year. I think we will have the opportunity to play in one of the other tournaments and we will certainly look forward to that as well."