By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Tech men's basketball team couldn't pull off the season series sweep over Ohio Valley Conference and in-state rival Tennessee State Thursday evening, falling to the Tigers in the Eblen Center by a final score of 79-62.
Tech (6-12, 2-3) looked to snag its second win over TSU (5-12, 2-3) in two weeks after defeating the Tigers in Nashville in the OVC opener on Jan. 3 in a 66-64 final decision. Turnovers and physicality were the name of the game, however, as the visitors forced the purple and gold into 20 miscues on the night.
"The strength of our team has been and will continue to be our interior players and our size," Tech head coach Steve Payne said. "For the second straight game I thought we were beaten physically around the rim and didn't rebound the ball at the level we need to."
Tennessee State scored 26 points off turnovers, using 11 of them in the first half to take a 35-26 lead into the break over the Golden Eagles. After a Tech triple two minutes into the second stanza, the Tigers jumped on a 13-0 run to expand the lead to 21 points.
TSU would lead by as much as 27 in the second half, but the Golden Eagles never backed off, trimming the deficit to as little as 13 with just under two minutes to play.
"With Jr. [Clay] out, our offense is not as smooth, and that's part of it," Payne explained. "You have to deal with injuries throughout the season. We've been dealing with them all year. I think we've had all nine scholarship guys, not counting the knee injuries, available for just two games this year.
"If we can get through this stuff, it will make us stronger and make us better. I don't know that ball handling as much as decision-making was the problem tonight. More than anything else, give Tennessee State credit. I felt they were completely the dominant team physically. I thought they whipped us physically around the rim, made the extra pass, dribbled against contact and beat us on the glass."
Tech shot the ball particularly well from beyond the arc in the contest, sinking 9-of-18 tries from deep. Special Olympics Player of the Game Corey Tillery provided most of the damage, connecting on six of his 10 attempts from beyond the 3-point line. He finished the contest with a game-high 20 points.
"It's about toughness, mentally," Tillery said when asked what he sees on the floor and how to get it turned back around. "We have all the pieces we need. We have size, ball handlers, shooters; we have everything we need to be a great team. I feel like we are a great team, it's just that we hit points in the game where we need great leadership and determination to get back into games when we give up runs. That's where we're lacking right now.
"We're not hanging our heads. We're grateful in that locker room that we have the opportunity to do this, that we have more games to redeem ourselves. We know what we need to do. It's hard. We know it's hard. We just have to get back to it and improve on those things we're lacking right now."
Blocks were another strength from the purple and gold on the night, with Micaiah Henry gathering four of the team's seven total rejections. He added nine points and five boards in just 23 minutes of action while dealing with foul trouble.
"At some point we need to figure out if we are going to be physically tough enough to be a good team" Payne said. "There's a good team here. We're still fitting the pieces together and because of injuries, we're a little behind from where I'd like to be."
When asked what he would tell Golden Eagle fans right now, Tillery replied, "We work hard every day to come out here and put on the best possible show to the best of our abilities. If I had anything to say, it would be just to keep supporting and stay behind us, because we're just going to keep working. We're never going to give up."
Photo by Thomas Corhern