By THOMAS CORHERN
HERALD-CITIZEN Assistant Sports Editor
NASHVILLE — After a five-year absence, the Tennessee Tech women are heading back to the Ohio Valley Conference championship. The Golden Eagles held off a late Austin Peay push and prevailed 65-56 in Friday's OVC tournament semifinal in Municipal Auditorium.
The win is Sytia Messer's first OVC tournament win as Tech's head coach and she now will lead the Golden Eagles into their 19th OVC title game.
"It's a great feeling," Messer said. "The thing we're focused on is winning it all. We have about five minutes to celebrate, then we have to go out and watch Morehead State and UT Martin go at it. It's a great win, we're excited, but we want to win it all. That's our goal."
Juniors and team leaders Tacarra Hayes and Rachel Glidden powered the Golden Eagles (23-6) to victory in a fitting fashion.
Hayes was a quiet 4-for-14 from the field, but got it done from the foul line, collecting 12 of her 20 points at the charity stripe. Hayes completed the double-double, the ninth of her career and the sixth this season.
"The whole time, I knew my offense was going to come," Hayes, the reigning OVC co-defensive player of the year, said. "During the game, I really wanted to focus on defense. (Brooke Faulkner) has had a few big games the last few weeks, and I wanted to focus on shutting her down (Faulkner ended with seven points on 3-for-16 shooting). I knew the offense was going to come and it did at the free-throw line today."
Glidden was on fire from 3-point range in the first half, scoring 12 of the Golden Eagles' first 14 points on treys. Glidden ended with six 3-pointers, two shy of Dana (Bilyeau) McWilliams' Tech tournament record of eight against Southeast Missouri in 1992 — which was eclipsed as an OVC tourney record by Morehead State's Chynna Bozeman in the Eagles' comeback win over Jacksonville State in Thursday's quarterfinal. Glidden scored 20 points in the win.
"We talked earlier about how it was our second season," Glidden said. "It's time for us juniors to step up. I came in with the mindset that we had to come in and play hard for 40 minutes and every possession counts."
Messer interjected, "I am just so proud of my two juniors. First of all, I'm just proud to say I have no seniors. That's number one. Secondly, Rachel, the big threes she hit, and Tacarra stepping up — she did a great job defending in the first half, then, in the second half, she let the offense come to her. I'm proud of these guys. They believe in this program and in me since day one. I'm just happy to share this with the team, especially these two."
For the Lady Govs (15-18), Nicole Olszewski led the way with 14 points as she tried to key a second-half comeback. Whitney Hanley scored 12 points as the only other APSU player in double figures.
And with three close contests this season between these two teams, and a series that has really started to heat up since the 1999-2000 season, Tech-APSU has started to turn into a bit of a women's basketball rivalry in the OVC.
"What a great rivalry," Messer said. "We go to Austin Peay this year and beat them. Peay comes to us when we have a chance to clinch the regular-season championship and they beat us on our home court. Then tonight we had a chance to go at it. It is a big rivalry. I admire Coach (Carrie) Daniels. She's done one of the best jobs I've seen at any level of getting her team ready. This year, we finished 2-1. Last year, they got us. We'll see what next year holds."
Every time the Golden Eagles surged forward, Austin Peay kept rolling back. After Tech took a seven-point 11-4 lead, the Lady Govs cut it back to one (11-10, 10:55). Then, Tech picked up a nine-point advantage (21-12), then APSU cut it back down to three points three times before the end of the first half, as the Golden Eagles went to the locker room at the intermission, leading 30-25.
Austin Peay started to take control early in the second half, tying the game then taking the lead on a pair of free throws by Dalila Thomas, which gave the Lady Govs what was their only lead of the game at 36-35.
Tiara Hopper (photo above) hit a layup at 13:47 left in the contest, putting Tech back on top for a lead it didn't relinquish and started a 7-0 run for the Golden Eagles.
The Golden Eagles started to fall into foul trouble with Brittany Darling fouling out, then Kylie Cook recording her fourth foul. But Tech overcame that hurdle, building up to an 11-point, 56-45 lead, the largest of the game.
"Our bench was crucial to help us overcome that," Messer said. "They did a great job. Tiara Hopper (five points, 2-for-2 field goals, 1-for-2 free throws, four rebounds) stepped up. Keisha Moore, Kellie Cook, a lot of our players. When we had our foul troubles, we had a lot of people step up."
Olszewski tried to give APSU a comeback scoring seven of the Lady Govs' 11 points in the final 3:53 of the game. APSU even cut the Tech lead down to five with 1:20 left, but Tech outscored the Lady Govs 9-5 to preserve the win.
"The thing we talked about was that we had to finish the deal," Messer said. "We felt like this season, especially when we played Peay at our place, there were opportunities that we didn't capitalize on — layups and free throws. So when they got close to us, we said, 'Listen, our goal is to finish the deal. We need to step up and make a stop, then step up and make our next basket.'"
Now it's focusing on the championship game.
"It's just good to get Tennessee Tech back to where it belongs," Messer said, "and that's at the top. It's going to be the 19th time, but it's my first time. All of us, all of our coaches, the players — our biggest thing is talking about finishing. We just need to finish it. We're excited to get there, but we don't just want to get there. We want to win it. It's going to be tough. Morehead and Martin are two great teams. The biggest thing is we have to focus on TTU basketball.
"People forget we did win the regular season, regardless of what people say. So we're the team to beat. That's what I'm telling our players. There's no pressure on us. Just play Tennessee Tech basketball and we'll be fine."
Tech will play #2 UT-Martin on Saturday. Tipoff is slated for 3 p.m.