By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
KENNESAW, Ga. – A 15-point rally just wasn't enough for the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team Saturday afternoon, as the Golden Eagles fell on the road to Kennesaw State in a heartbreaker, 73-68.
A cold start to the day, Tech was just 1-of-10, put the Golden Eagles (3-8) facing an early deficit as the hometown Owls (2-9) hit shot after shot to explode for a 15-point advantage roughly half way through the first period. KSU buried 5-of-6 triples early in the contest, forcing the purple and gold to adjust on defense.
And adjust it did. Tech switched to a suffocating zone look, forcing multiple turnovers and tough shots for the remainder of the half, allowing the offense to work its way back. The Golden Eagles hit five 3-pointers of their own while sinking 9-of-13 attempts from the charity stripe to cut the Owl lead to just 41-36 headed into the break, even with the home team shooting 57.1 percent from the floor.
The Tech defense continued to work hard in the second half, holding Kennesaw State to a more modest 37.0 percent from the floor. With 14:48 to go in the contest, the Golden Eagles took their first lead of the game thanks to a fast-break, alley-oop slam by Courtney Alexander II from Jr. Clay.
The Owls responded with a 9-0 run to put the lead back up to eight. Once again, Tech chipped and clawed back, earning its own 7-0 run to knot things at 61 apiece with 4:44 to play after a Malik Martin triple.
Kennesaw State answered with a fast-break layup and defensive board, but Clay snagged one of his five steals on the night and went in for his own attempt for a layup. The freshman point guard missed with some contact, and, while yelling at his team to get back on defense, Tech head coach Steve Payne was inexplicably called for a technical.
The Owls made both free throws and would hit another pair after a foul on the same possession provided two more tries. The lead would swell to as many as eight with 1:25 on the clock, but there was no quit for the Golden Eagles.
Tech cut it by two after a pair of free throws from Alexander. Tech began to foul with under 20 seconds to play, trading a free throw and a miss for a layup by Clay to make it a five-point game. Another 1-for-2 showing at the line gave Tech the ball with under five second to go, but redshirt freshman Hunter Vick hit a contested, off-balance three to make it a one-possession game with 0.8 seconds on the clock.
KSU would hit its final two attempts at the line for the final score of 73-68.
"Twenty free throws to five in the second half when we kept attacking the basket," Payne said when asked what he saw in the second half of the close ball game. "We only shot nine threes in the half, it's not like we cranked them up.
"That said, we need to do a better job in our two-on-ones. We had four two-on-ones that we didn't score on and made a bad decision with a freshman with the game tied, trying to throw the ball off the backboard instead of just trying to get a foul and a bucket. We can't do that. They went and hit a three after that. That was a big play. I got a technical for yelling at them to get back. Those were big plays."
After seeing the free throw line 13 times in the first half, Tech only made five trips in the second half as the foul count ballooned to a 12-5 advantage for the home squad with under three minutes of action. KSU made just enough of its 20 tries at the stripe, sinking 11 to snap a nine-game skid.
"We need to make better decisions," Payne said. "I've never played a game where we've outscored someone in the paint in the second half and they get 20 free throws to our five. That's tough to take. I feel pretty good about what we put out there. But the bottom line is, we had nine turnovers in the second half and gave up some big rebounds against a very good rebounding team. The nine turnovers and two-on-ones we didn't finish were just the end of it."
Vick led the Golden Eagles on the night with his third 20-point outing of the season, finishing with an even 20 on 8-for-14 shooting and four triples. He became the first Tech rookie to post three 20-point efforts since Jud Dillard did it in the 2009-10 season.
His fellow freshman, Clay, filled the box score with 16 points, five rebounds, six assists and five steals in 32 minutes of action off the bench. Alexander tacked on 11 points to go along with a team-high seven rebounds.
"We're getting better," Payne explained. "It's frustrating. I know our guys are frustrated. They [Kennesaw State] hit some big shots in the first half, but I felt we did some good things defensively. We'll continue to improve. We have a big game coming up and we need to just keep playing and playing."
The big game marks Tech's last before a brief Christmas break, as the Golden Eagles will return to the Eblen Center one final time prior to the New Year. TTU will host a rematch against Savannah State on Thursday, Dec. 20 at 6:00 p.m. CT, looking to avenge a 97-83 loss on the road to the Tigers earlier this season.
Photo by Tony Marable