By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Good ball movement and a strong first half proved enough for the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team (18-12, 10-7) to claim a crucial, 69-64 victory over in-state rival Tennessee State (15-13, 10-7) Thursday evening.
With the win, the Golden Eagles kept their chance at a first-round bye in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament alive, simply needing a victory over Jacksonville State on Saturday evening's Senior Night contest to claim the No. 4 seed in Evansville, Ind.
On his way to claiming Special Olympics Player of the Game honors, graduate transfer Shaq Calhoun put forth a tremendous effort on the scoreboard, dropping a game-high 21 points on 5-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc. Coupled with his six triples hit in Nashville, Calhoun helped Tech to a season-series sweep of the Tigers for the first time since the 2006-07 campaign by making a total of 11 3-pointers in two games against its rival.
Curtis Phillips Jr. tallied his third double-double of the year, scoring 15 points and snagging 10 rebounds while also posting five assists and three steals. Mason Ramsey also scored in double figures, finishing with 11 points. Kajon Mack finished with eight points, six assists and zero turnovers and Courtney Alexander II notched nine points on the night, including a savage slam dunk in the first half.
TSU's Christian Mekowulu led his team with 19 points while Armani Chaney and Delano Spencer each contributed 16 points.
The Golden Eagles dished out a whopping 19 assists on 22 made field goals in the contest, breaking the program record for highest percentage of assists to made field goals in a single game with a mark of 86.4. Tech originally set the record earlier this season on Dec. 28 in a win against Morehead State, assisting on 85.7 percent (24 out of 28) of its makes.
That ball movement led Tech's offense early, which finished 6-of-13 from 3-point range in the first half, a 46.2 percent showing. Overall, the Golden Eagles wrapped up the first half at 52.2 percent shooting from the floor for a 33-19 lead.
Tech's defense held on late, despite the Tigers sinking 14-of-20 attempts at the line in the second half alone. The Golden Eagle defense forced 18 turnovers and held TSU under 40 percent shooting for the contest. The Tigers managed just a 15.8 percent clip from downtown as well, including an 0-for-11 first half.
"I thought we played well," head coach Steve Payne said. "We're a different team than we were in November and December – just through injuries and guys getting banged up – but we're such a more physical and better defensive team. We still don't rebound the ball at times the way we need to, but we're able to gut out and defend. I'm proud of that. I would have liked us to execute a little better down the stretch, but I feel good about the game our guys played. They just did some nice things against a very good and well-coached team."
The Golden Eagles will wrap up the 2017-18 regular season schedule Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. CT in the Eblen Center. The contest will represent the last in the Hoop for five members of the Tech squad, all of whom will be honored in a preseason ceremony as part of Senior Night.
Tech will square off with Jacksonville State, fighting for a chance at the No. 4 seed in the OVC Tournament next week.
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information