Stingy defense propels Golden Eagles to victory over UT Martin

Stingy defense propels Golden Eagles to victory over UT Martin

By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – A rock solid showing on the defensive end of the floor propelled the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team to another victory in the Hooper Eblen Center Saturday evening, as the Golden Eagles (15-8, 7-3) defeated UT Martin (8-15, 3-7), 63-55.

Tech moved to 10-1 at home on the year, using a hot start on offense and defense to control the contest early. The Golden Eagles opened the contest on a 26-9 run, holding the Skyhawks to single digits until the 6:20 mark of the first half.

"I'm proud of our guys," head coach Steve Payne remarked. "We weren't fluid offensively, and I think their defense and their length had a lot to do with that. We did execute well, in the first half in particular. They made some adjustments to what we were doing and made it a little tougher on us."

A small run by the visitors before the break still left Tech with a 31-20 advantage, one that would escalate to 18 points over the first three minutes of the second half thanks to a 7-0 run. UT Martin tightened its defense enough at a time when the Golden Eagles hit a cold spell offensively, and the combination allowed the Skyhawks to climb all the way back to tie the game at 49 apiece with 4:37 to play.

"We had a stretch in the second half where we missed some layups and some threes," Payne explained, "but we kept telling the guys during the timeouts, 'it's not going to change. They're going to keep playing.' We expected it to be close and I think we did a great job of not panicking. When they got tired, our guys made some nice plays. We made some athletic plays on defense and we fought on the glass. There was a just a few minutes there where we didn't come up with some loose balls and it hurt us; but I thought when the game was on the line, we did a very good job."

Two of those athletic plays on the defensive end came courtesy of the Special Olympics Player of the Game, Shaq Calhoun. The graduate transfer made a leaping, one-handed steal à la Odell Beckham Jr. with just over two minutes to play and Tech clinging to a two-point lead. He hit fellow graduate guard Kajon Mack in transition, who was fouled and calmly knocked down two free throws to add some breathing room.

Two possessions later, he made a massive rejection on a layup attempt by Dominique Williams, blasting the ball away to preserve a six-point Tech advantage. He also hauled in a key rebound late and sank two free throws after drawing a foul to essentially ice the game with an eight-point lead and under a minute to play.

"We are so together and we don't want to lose, so every single game we come out and give it our all," Calhoun said after the contest. "Every practice, we give it our all. It doesn't matter if we're hurt, sick – we still come out and compete, and I feel that has a big impact on how we finish games."

Calhoun finished with 11 points, three rebounds, two blocks and three steals on the night. Curtis Phillips Jr. led Tech with 17 points while adding five boards and a couple of steals.

Mack just missed a double-double, scoring nine points and dishing out eight assists. Courtney Alexander II also just missed out on a double-double, posting nine points on 3-for-5 shooting and hauling in a game-high 11 boards. Mason Ramsey put forth another double-digit performance, shooting 50 percent from the field on his way to 12 points.

As a team, Tech tallied 14 assists and nine steals, both categories the squad led the OVC in entering the game.

The Golden Eagles will hit the road for a three-game stretch beginning with a Thursday night tilt at SIUE Feb. 1, with tip scheduled for 7:00 p.m. CT. Tech will remain in the "Land of Lincoln" for a Saturday match-up at 3:15 p.m. against Eastern Illinois. A contest south against Jacksonville State on Thursday, Feb. 8 rounds out the road stretch, with the game set to appear on ESPNU at 8:00 p.m.

Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information