By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – An early second-half run proved too much to overcome for the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team Thursday night as the Golden Eagles fell to in-state and Ohio Valley Conference rival Austin Peay, 77-66 in the Eblen Center.
Trailing by 13 at the break, Tech (7-15, 3-6) struggled to start the second half of the contest while the Governors (15-7, 7-2) jumped out with an 8-0 run, extending its advantage to 21 points. That lead would grow to 23 and still sit at 22 with just over five minutes to play, but the young Golden Eagles refused to go down without a fight.
The tenacious defense held one of the league's most potent offenses without a field goal the remainder of the contest, allowing just five free throws in over five minutes. Tech chipped away, bit-by-bit at the Austin Peay lead, cutting it to as low as nine points with 31 seconds on the clock after redshirt freshman Hunter Vick completed an old-fashioned, three-point play.
The run proved too little, too late to pull out the win, but the Golden Eagles showed signs of an improving team down the stretch. Tech outworked the Govs on the glass in the second half, corralling 11 more boards. Altogether, TTU owned a 43-32 advantage in rebounding.
The team's Achilles' heel, turnovers, proved once again to be the X factor for the Golden Eagles. Tech made 24 on the evening to just nine for the Governors.
"I'm very proud of the guys that played late, how hard they played and that they gave us a chance," Tech head coach Steve Payne said. "This game was just like a lot of our other games. The guys competed hard, we just turned it over way too much to be successful. We are rebounding the ball better and I credit our guys a lot for that, for making corrections there. You just can't give the other team 12 more shots at the goal than what you have. We did a lot of things right, especially after that rough start to the second half. Just turnovers, turnovers, turnovers."
Offensively, it was a tale of two halves for the purple and gold. Tech shot just 25 percent from the floor and 21.4 percent from downtown over the first 20 minutes. Things clicked in the second stanza, with the Golden Eagles hitting 52 percent of its tries from the field, including a 4-for-5 showing from beyond the arc. Tech outscored the Govs in the second half, 42-40.
"Offense was a struggle in the first half and so was taking care of the ball," Payne said. "I thought we found something that worked for us in the second half, but because we gave up that big, early run coming out of halftime, we had to get away from our defensive game plan. When you do that and put the pressure on those veteran guards they have, they're going to make you pay. They're not going to beat themselves and they didn't."
Both Vick and fellow rookie Jr. Clay paced the Tech offense on the night, each scoring 14 points. Clay also dished out seven assists and snagged four rebounds with two steals. Vick connected on 4-of-6 shots, including two triples, and sank all four of his free throw attempts. Malik Martin posted nine points, seven rebounds, two assists, two blocks and no turnovers in just 23 minutes.
A key cog in the valiant effort showed late by the Golden Eagles was Sparta, Tenn. native and Special Olympics Player of the Game, Cade Crosland. The junior guard was a spark in both halves coming off the bench.
In the first half, with the offense struggling to get anything going, he drained a pair of triples to breathe new life into his team. Reentering the game with five minutes to play in the contest, Crosland, who underwent knee surgery in June to repair a torn ACL, provided the necessary energy to kick start the Tech comeback bid. He completed the contest with a season-high eight points, four rebounds, two assists and a steal in 15 minutes.
"I love basketball," Crosland said when asked how it felt to see the floor more. "I hate sitting, but it was great to just be out there and be with my team and be able to contribute. Just the fact that I was able to go out there and help in any way I could was great. I felt good. It was the first game without the brace and it really just restricts me a lot. I can't really bend my knee all the way or straighten my knee out all the way with the brace. So I felt like that really helped me out a lot too, being able to be a little faster, especially laterally. I just love being out there."
Commenting on the junior guard when he finished talking, Payne said "I've always been a big believer in playing your tough guys. You have to play your warriors when things aren't going well and he's definitely a warrior. He's not full speed, and you can tell he's still not quite like himself. Our guys just need to play hard. If they just play hard, it gives us a chance. A dude on one leg led us in rebounding with two and a half minutes to go. He plays 15 minutes and has four rebounds at just six feet tall. He does not have all his athleticism back, but he can go do that because he has a big heart in his chest."
The Golden Eagles will be back in action Saturday, Feb. 2 in more OVC action, playing host to Murray State in a 7:30 p.m. CT tilt in the Eblen Center.
Photo by Thomas Corhern