By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Ball security was the key to the game Tuesday night, as the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team fell on the road to Memphis in the 2018-19 season opener, 76-61 at the FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn.
Running a full-court press for much of the contest, the home-town Tigers (1-0) pressured the Golden Eagles (0-1) into 26 turnovers on the night, leading to their first win in the Penny Hardaway era in front of a crowd of over 15,000. Despite the tough night will ball control, Tech continued to battle despite seeing three players battle foul trouble.
"I thought we had a few opportunities to really make it close that we just didn't take advantage of, and they had a lot to do with that," head coach Steve Payne explained. "I was disappointed with our decision making on the back of the press. I thought we handled the pressure really well, but their quickness, toughness and aggressiveness really sped us up and we tried to make too many hard passes.
"I'm pleased with everything except throwing the ball out of bounds. Some of those turnovers are because they're pretty good and some of those turnovers are because we just made bad decisions. There are some things we need to clean up and I think we will. I hope it's sooner rather than later, but I was pleased overall with our effort and our willingness to battle."
A shining star on the night for the Golden Eagles was the play of junior Micaiah Henry, who turned in his first career double-double behind a career showing both on the glass and the scoreboard. The Tech big man was dominant inside the paint, putting up a career-high 16 points at the break.
Henry finished the night with a team-high 23 points on 8-for-9 shooting from the field and an impressive 7-for-11 effort from the charity stripe. The veteran center also hauled in a career-high and game-high 13 rebounds, including six on the offensive glass. He chipped in two blocks as well.
Making his long-awaited Golden Eagle debut after sitting out the 2017-18 campaign due to injury, Hunter Vick did not disappoint in his first collegiate action. The redshirt freshman tallied 10 points, six rebounds and three assists while playing a game-high 33 minutes.
Northwestern transfer Johnnie Vassar turned in eight points in limited action due to foul trouble while Courtney Alexander II snagged nine rebounds to go along with six points and team-high five assists.
"We've said for two years now that he [Henry] is an All-Conference post player and he definitely played like it tonight," Payne said of the bright spots on the night. "I thought Hunter Vick, for his first college game, was a really nice piece out there. All of the freshmen, really, had moments when they looked like freshman, but they also had moments where they made some nice plays in a tough environment. Johnnie Vassar competed his tail off, he just got into some foul trouble."
Tech drew a healthy amount of fouls in the contest, heading to the free-throw line 29 times. The Golden Eagles converted 19 of the trips for a percentage of 65.5. TTU also only allowed 11 Memphis free throws on the night.
"When we settle down our offense and executed our motion stuff, I thought we really got good looks," Payne said. "Whether we hit them or not, now that's a different story.
"This is a young team. We had only had three guys on the floor tonight that played collegiate basketball at the Division I level last season. We're going to get healthy over the next few weeks and I feel like we will have a nice year. They are going to keep getting better and better as we move along and I love our guys."
The Tigers' Kyvon Davenport led all scorers on the night with 30 points and added 10 rebounds for a double-double. Jeremiah Martin posted 18 points, the only other Tiger in double figures.
The Golden Eagles hung toe-to-toe with their in-state rivals early, sinking three of their first four field goals to earn an 8-6 lead in the opening three minutes. Memphis answered with three straight 3-pointers before the media break, taking advantage of a cold spell that would see Tech miss its next 10 attempts from the field.
In that span, the Tigers jumped ahead 24-10, essentially covering for the final 15-point decision. The lead inflated to as much as 19, but the Golden Eagles cut it to 11 in the second half. Both sides finished the second half with 30 points.
"It's just a great environment for basketball," Payne expressed. "My first collegiate coaching job was in west Tennessee at Union University, so I spent a lot of time in Memphis. I really fell in love with the basketball scene down here and it's a special place. I was glad to see the energy back. It was a great environment for our four freshman to play in tonight."
The Golden Eagles will return to Cookeville for their home opener on Saturday, playing host to Presbyterian in a 6:00 p.m. CT tilt in the Eblen Center.
Photo by Tony Marable