By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Tech men's basketball team built a quick and early advantage Thursday evening and never looked back, leading Savannah State wire-to-wire to pick up its fourth victory of the season with a 91-80 decision over the Tigers (3-10) in the Eblen Center.
"We did some really good things tonight to give us a chance," head coach Steve Payne said. "We took care of the ball. The last time we played them we had 23 turnovers and gave up 24 offensive rebounds. They're quick. They play a unique style. I thought we did a very good job of controlling the tempo and pace of the game, attacking the rim and getting fouled. Our advantage is in the post. We're going to have to do that a lot more as we move forward, with those big guys we have, even though I don't think we finished very well around there tonight."
The Golden Eagles (4-8) opened the contest with an 8-1 run over the first three minutes, eventually extending their advantage to 14 points as redshirt freshman Hunter Vick took over early. The rookie guard helped provide a 10-point, halftime lead behind 16 points, three assists and two steals with four makes from beyond the arc.
Vick, the co-Special Olympics Player of the Game, finished the contest with a game-high 22 points, tying his season-best mark on 8-for-16 shooting. He chipped in three rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block in 34 minutes. The Camden, Tenn. native became the first Tech freshman since Bruce Oglesby in 1990-91 to post at least four 20-point outings.
"I told people the other day at our luncheon that he's the first freshman since Jud Dillard to have three 20 points games," Payne explained when asked about Vick's performance. "When you get mentioned in the same breath as Jud Dillard, that's a pretty big feat. I got to coach Jud and he was a special player. I'm really happy for Hunter. He's having a good, effective freshman year. He needs to keep getting better. Tonight he had four assists and zero turnovers, shot the ball with confidence and took the ball to the hole a few times. Those are things we ask him to do. He played very good defense tonight on the perimeter. That's a good start for him."
He set the tone on offense while the Tech defense kept the nation's leader in 3-point field goal attempts at bay for much of the contest. Overall, the Tigers attempted just 27 triples, more than 10 less than their season average.
The defense also forced 16 Savannah State turnovers, with nine steals. On the flip side, Tech made a season-low five turnovers in the contest while racking up 16 assists on their way to a 91-point outburst.
"Having Jr. [Clay] out there to start probably helps that a little," Payne said when asked about the turnover differential on the night. "It gives us two guys that can play point in Jr. and Courtney [Alexander II]. It certainly helps when Hunter can play some point too. We really made an adjustment where we felt Corey Tillery coming off the bench would be an offensive factor; just come in and be a gun slinger. He did a good job of that. He hunted his shot, did some good things and played the way we want to play."
In the second half, with the Tiger defense locked down on Vick and switching to more of a zone, it was graduate transfer Malik Martin's turn to take over on offense. The 7-footer, and co-Special Olympics Player of the Game, scored 13 of his 20 points over the final 20 minutes of the game, sinking 5-of-6 attempts at the charity stripe. He tallied four boards and three assists while making his second straight start for the Golden Eagles.
Alexander posted his third double-double of the season and seventh of his career, totaling 11 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. He hit five of his seven tries from the free-throw line as well while making three steals. Tillery added 10 points off the bench, sinking 2-of-5 attempts from downtown. Clay finished with nine points, five rebounds and a team-high five assists without a turnover.
"I thought it was a good Christmas present, getting ready to go into Christmas with a few days off," Payne added. "Hopefully that will jump start us as we head towards conference play."
Tech will take a few days off for Christmas before returning to practice to prepare for the team's final non-conference tilt, a Saturday, Dec. 29 match-up with No. 3 Tennessee. The Golden Eagles will visit the Volunteers at Thompson-Boling Arena in a 12:00 p.m. CT affair before kicking off Ohio Valley Conference play in the New Year.
Photo by Thomas Corhern