By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Tech men just needed one more play, but as a last-second desperation shot fell off the mark, so did the Golden Eagles' rally bid on Thursday night as Tech dropped a 67-66 heartbreaker at the Hooper Eblen Center.
Tech (7-21, 3-12 Ohio Valley Conference) put together an amazing effort to get back into position, erasing a 14-point deficit to trail by just one point with 1:07 remaining in the contest. However, the score never changed in those final 67 ticks.
"We did everything to win the game except make one more play," said Tech head coach Steve Payne. "I hate it. I hate it for them. We didn't finish the play. We got tips at it, second shots at it. It just didn't get in the hole. I don't think, as a coach, I could ask any more basketball tonight than what they gave us out there. That hurts, but through sheer will and toughness, they gave themselves a chance to win that game."
With time ticking down with under 15 seconds to go, Jr. Clay and Courtney Alexander couldn't get layups to fall and the ball went back to the Colonels with two seconds left, forcing a desperate foul.
"Nothing went wrong," Payne said. "We just missed the shot. We got the offensive rebound and we just panicked a bit with six seconds left. As a coach, you can't call a timeout on the sideline anymore, so you just have to let the guys play. We do a drill called circle transitions where there are basically nine-second games to practice that. That's what those situations are for. There's no timeouts, it's a rebound and get the ball down the floor. It teaches you how to finish off games, ahead or behind.
"But nothing really went wrong. We didn't have a normal 5 in. We wanted to get Jr. off the screen and rescreen to the basket. Courtney was just a little unsure and just wasn't as good of a screener as Garrett or Mike or Maleek would have been. He wasn't comfortable in the situation. We wanted to get Jr. downhill and, if we could pass it, pass it and take a shot. He got it to the rim and I feel like he got a pretty good shot, but you have to finish. CA got the rebound and I thought he got a good look at it and it got knocked down and chased around. We panicked and tried to make a pass to an open guy and didn't make good enough of a pass."
Payne continued, "You want to attack the basket, especially on a night like this where guys aren't making shots. You want to attack the basket and we did. You want to get second-chance points and opportunities – we did. We had them where we wanted. We just had to make one more play. I can't fault any one guy for that. CA gave tremendous fight to get the rebound, Jr. made a tremendous effort to get to the rim. Jared, Hunter and Corey chased down the ball and it just didn't work out for us. If you told me we were going to get three shots at it, I'd be feeling pretty good about it. We just needed to make one more shot."
EKU's Kelvin Robinson missed both ends of the resulting free throws and Alexander took the rebounded ball and heaved it deep to the basket, the shot falling off the target.
"I'm really proud of our guys," Payne said. "I'm really proud of their fight on a night where we could not throw the ball into the ocean except this guy here (freshman Jared Sherfield). We just couldn't make a shot when we needed it. We had a lot of different lineups on the floor and we really haven't played Courtney at the 5 this year because of having guys like Malik (Martin), Garrett (Golday) and Mike (Micaiah Henry), and suddenly we've got to have him.
"The guys did a good job of playing defense and giving us a chance to win the game. Courtney really did a monstrous job on the backboards in the second half. Jared did a great job of defending Nick Mayo despite giving up six inches and probably sixty pounds to the guy and he did a great job of just turning the mentality of the game in our favor."
It was a tough finish for what was a stellar night for Tech's freshman trio of Sherfield, Hunter Vick and Jr. Clay, who all finished in double-digit scoring. Sheffield led all scorers with a career-high 19 points on 6-for-10 shooting and threw down a thundering dunk to help give the Golden Eagles a spark late in the second half. Clay finished with 14 points and a team-high six assists, while Vick had 11 points, including 7-for-8 at the charity stripe.
Henry was the only upperclassman to score in double digits as he put up 16 points on a 5-for-8 night. Alexander led Tech on the glass, bringing down 14 caroms.
Both teams saw a lot of points come from the charity stripe as EKU's 19-for-27 effort was eclipsed by Tech's 21-of-28.
Nick Mayo led the Colonels (12-16, 5-10 OVC) with 17 points, while Jomaru Brown had 13 points. Tre King recorded a double-double with 10 points and rebounds.
"Nick Mayo is going to be playing in the NBA one day," Payne said. "He's a tough cover and we did a great job on him. When he's in the game, he requires a double team. He requires special attention. Micaiah did a great job of attacking the rim and getting him in foul trouble. He played a very good game and we needed that out of Mike, but the truth is that kid is one of the best to ever play in the conference. He's been a great player for a long time and will make an NBA roster.
"Once we got down to the last six minutes with Courtney with three fouls instead of four, we went back a little more into man and Courtney was able to go after guys, then (Mayo) fouled out. We had to get to a certain point where we could get our best defender on him and that can be a difference-maker."
The Golden Eagles return to action on Saturday for their home finale against Morehead State (10-17, 6-8 OVC). The game will be Tech's Senior Night.
Photo by Thomas Corhern