Dominance on the boards leads Tech past ULM for first win of season

Dominance on the boards leads Tech past ULM for first win of season

By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – A dominant showing on the glass, a renewed effort in taking care of the basketball and strong performance shooting ball all led the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team to its first victory of the 2018-19 campaign Friday evening, a 79-73 decision over visiting ULM.

The Golden Eagles (1-5) overcame a 10-point, first-half deficit to collect its first win of the season, holding on late down the stretch to down a Warhawk (2-3) squad that played Texas to within 10 points less than two weeks ago.

"I'm really pleased with our guys," Tech head coach Steve Payne said. "I think that's a very good basketball team we just beat. I thought we did a lot of very nice things, especially after halftime; more than anything, just our mentality. We played a little timid in the first half with when to shoot and when not to shoot, which is a learning experience for these guys."

Tech outworked ULM on glass, grabbing a 14-6 advantage on the offensive boards and 45-28 advantage overall on the night. Entering the game averaging 21.0 turnovers per game, the Golden Eagles made just 12 in the contest while dishing out 12 assists.

The TTU defense was out in full force early, limiting the Warhawks to 32.1 percent shooting from the field in the first half. Even with a stronger second half, ULM still couldn't overcome a feisty Tech defense, which held the team to just 37.5 percent from the floor in the game.

"I just thought our toughness, rebounding the basketball and our defense were all outstanding," Payne explained. "I'm pleased with everything except our free throw shooting tonight.

"The rebounding and ball security is what is going to win us games. We've been saying it and saying it, 'if we take care of the ball and rebound the basketball, we'll win a lot of games. We did that tonight. We didn't win the turnover battle, but we took care of it well enough to only have 12 turnovers. For us, that's like not having any compared to what we've been doing."

A key part to the rebounding effort were big men Courtney Alexander II and Micaiah Henry, who combined for 27 of the teams 45 boards. Alexander corralled a career-high 16, narrowly missing a double-double with eight points. He also dished out five assists. Henry snagged 11 boards while scoring 14 points on an efficient 6-of-7 shooting from the floor for his second double-double of the season.

On offense, guards Corey Tillery and Hunter Vick led the way, each dropping 20 points on hot nights. Tillery, who boasted a Tech career-high and was named the Special Olympics Player of the Game, sank 5-of-9 attempts from beyond the arc and finished 6-for-10 from the floor.

"It wasn't really about the numbers for me to be honest," Tillery said of his effort. "It was just about getting the win and it was a relief. If I can play well to help us win, that's all that matters. Numbers are great, but at the end of the day, I'm just happy we got this win. We're a good team, we just haven't been able to show it until tonight."

A redshirt freshman, Vick posted his second career 20-point effort on 8-of-12 shooting from the field. He made especially strong work of a turnaround, mid-range jumper that seemingly gave ULM fits throughout the night.

"More than anything, I just liked their mindset and their approach to basketball and being courageous enough to make a play and shoot the ball, which is what we need from them," Payne said of the efforts of Tillery and Vick. "They took good shots and we also really moved and shared the ball well."

Also in double figures for the Golden Eagles was freshman Jr. Clay, who tallied 11 points and two assists in 22 minutes of action off the bench.

For the game, Tech shot 48.2 percent from the floor and 47.1 percent from 3-point range. The one red flag on the night was at the charity stripe, where the Golden Eagles hit on just 17-of-32 attempts for a 53.1 percent clip.

The win for the Golden Eagles comes after a three-game road trip that saw Tech play two top-15 teams.

"It doesn't show well on paper, but it definitely has prepared us for facing adversity like we did tonight," Tillery said of the tough schedule to start the season. "I think if we played them earlier in the season before we had those tough games, we might have folded at the end. Tonight we stayed strong mentally and finished the game out."

The Golden Eagles trimmed a 10-point deficit with 3:20 to play in the first half to six at halftime. Tech then scored the first eight points of the second half, taking the lead and never surrendering it the rest of the night.

"I'm very proud of our guys" Payne said. "I've told them the last few days 'it's all going to click, I don't know when, but it will click for you if you keep plugging.' Hopefully this is the start of it and we'll be the team I think we can be from here on out."

Photo by Thomas Corhern