By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – If Thursday night's Ohio Valley Conference opener is any indication, the Tennessee Tech men's basketball time is in for a thrilling run through league play over the next 10 weeks. The Golden Eagles (9-5, 1-0) used a last-second layup from senior Curtis Phillips Jr. to defeat Morehead State (4-8, 0-1) in the teams' kickoff to 2017-18 OVC slate, 69-67.
The Golden Eagles showed off the kind of ball movement that ranked them first in the league heading into the contest. Tech's 24 assists – the team's sixth game with 20-plus helpers on the year – on 28 field goals (85.7 percent) broke the school record for percentage of assists to field goals made in a single game set earlier this season against Boyce College (34-on-41 – 82.9 percent).
"It's a good win," Payne said. "Any time you get a conference win against a tough, well-coached and physical team like that, it's a good win. Those guys went to the glass extremely hard. My initial impression is that we did not play as well as I would have liked, but the truth is – after you look through the stat sheet and really think about the game – we really did play pretty well."
Between the ability to share the ball and an up-tempo attack – Tech outscored the Eagles 22-2 on fast break points – the Golden Eagles were able to hold off a late comeback bid. Morehead State rallied from eight back with just under four minutes to play, tying the game on the team's only fast-break bucket of the evening, a layup by A.J. Hicks.
Coach Payne called timeout with the ball and 10 seconds left on the clock, drawing up a play for graduate guard Kajon Mack to take the last shot. Mack drove around the left side of the lane, throwing up an attempt that careened off the rim and backboard and landed just behind two Morehead State players.
Phillips snagged just the third offensive board for the Golden Eagles on the night, took one dribble and laid the ball in off the glass with four tenths of a second to play. Morehead State's desperation pass attempt was knocked down at half-court (also by Phillips) to secure the Tech victory.
Despite being out-rebounded 41-29 (including a 14-3 mark on the offensive glass), the Golden Eagles held a clear advantage in scoring around the basket. Tech scored 44 points in the paint as compared to just 26 by the Eagles.
The ability to score close helped TTU's field goal percentage as well, as Tech shot 51.9 percent from the field – a key stat on a night that included struggles at the charity stripe. The Golden Eagles hit just eight of their 16 free-throw attempts while Morehead State finished 16-for-25.
Tech did force 17 MSU turnovers on the night, racking up 11 steals along the way.
"We had 24 assists on 28 baskets," Payne said. "We outscored them by nearly 20 points in the paint. There were really only two exceptions to saying we played well, and that was our rebounding – where we were atrocious – and then our free-throw shooting. We are too good of a shooting team to not have good free-throw shooters. But when you look at the stats, there are a lot of good things in there and it's a win. We need to grow on it and get better. You can never take a win for granted."
Phillips led the Golden Eagles with 17 points on 8-for-17 shooting while tallying his first double-double of the year with a team-high 10 rebounds. He also dished out five assists, blocked two shots and totaled three steals while making just a single turnover.
Mason Ramsey chipped in 14 points on a 5-for-8 night and Mack added 13 points with six assists. Aleksa Jugovic hit at least one 3-pointer for the 21st consecutive game, leading to 10 points and a team-best seven assists.
The win marked a milestone for Coach Payne, as the seventh-year head man earned his 100th career victory both in Division I and at Tennessee Tech. He became just the sixth head coach in program history to hit the century mark in the wins column.
"That's great, but it doesn't matter," Payne explained. "We have a special group of guys. They aren't perfect and they're not going to be perfect, but they have a chance to have a really good year because of their character, their toughness, their intelligence and their basketball ability. I'm looking forward to coaching them moving forward and if we have 17 more wins just like this one, we'll be tickled to death."
Tech returns to the hardwood Saturday evening for a nationally televised contest (by CBS Sports Network) against Eastern Kentucky. The game is scheduled for a 6 p.m. CT start while the women's game against the Colonels will kick off at 3 p.m.
The contest represents Upper Cumberland Night, providing all fans with an Upper Cumberland address on their identification with $1 admission. It will also be Youth Basketball Night, allowing any child wearing their basketball uniform to receive free admission.
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information