By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
CHARLESTON, Ill. – A 9-0 run with less than two minutes to play helped the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team to wrap up the 2018-19 campaign with momentum. The Golden Eagles rallied on the road to defeat Eastern Illinois, 63-57, Saturday evening in Lantz Arena in Charleston, Ill.
It was a surge led by a trio of freshmen, with some assistance from a couple of cagey veterans, that propelled the Tech men (8-23, 4-14) to snap a nine-game skid and end the season with something to build on. Trailing 57-54 with 1:32 to play, rookie point guard Jr. Clay fought for a contested layup and pulled Tech to within one.
Fellow freshman guard Jared Sherfield earned a quick steal, but the Golden Eagles gave the ball right back on its own turnover. The Panthers (14-17, 7-11) would miss their next shot with 38 seconds to play, allowing junior guard Corey Tillery to corral the board and start a crucial possession for the purple and gold.
It was Clay who stepped up, draining an NBA-range triple with 20 seconds on the clock to seize the lead for the Golden Eagles. The found himself some room after a fantastic screen by junior center Micaiah Henry, pulling up and hitting a monster shot. Arguably the biggest shot of the youngster's career came just seconds after he had lost a contact on the floor and had to leave the game before he could come back in after a timeout from Tech head coach Steve Payne.
"I called a couple of timeouts trying to get him back into the ball game," Payne expressed with a grin when asked about Clay's shot. "He got his contact back in and he did [hit a big shot]. He hit big shots for us all year."
With nine seconds to play, the Tech defense forced up a tough 3-point attempt by the Panthers and redshirt freshman guard Hunter Vick battled for a well-earned rebound and subsequent foul. The Camden, Tenn. native went to the line and hit a pair of crucial free throws, advancing the Golden Eagle lead to 61-57 with eight seconds to play.
Henry soared into the air and swiped a hail-mary pass down the court with two hands, and with one motion, sent a pass to Jered Sherfield back down the court where he shaved five seconds off the clock. Sherfield, a Tuscaloosa, Ala. native, calmly sank two free throws to ice the game away, giving Tech the 63-57 victory.
Vick was roaring hot early in the contest, sinking his first three attempts from beyond the arc for nine points in the opening half. He continued his scoring prowess in the second stanza, scoring 10 more to finish with a game-high 19 points. He shot 6-of-12 from the field, 4-for-6 from 3-point range and 3-of-3 from the charity stripe while grabbing five boards without taking a break.
Clay laid down 12 of his 14 crucial points in the second half, concluding his freshman campaign with six boards, five assists and three steals. It marked his 24th game scoring in double figures, the second-most in program history behind Earl Wise's 25 in 1986-87.
"He and Hunter have really been the guys we've gone to when the game is on the line," Payne explained. "And it's hard for freshmen to be those guys, but they've done it and they've hit big shots during the year. It's probably not fair to those guys that that's who they are for this team right now, but that's who they are. We'll be better because of it. Jr.'s been making plays for us all year long."
Sherfield, who entered the game volcanic, having scored 19, 20, and 11 points in each of his last three games, dropped 14 more on Saturday, helping Vick with eight of his 14 points in the contest coming in the first half. He snared four rebounds and tallied a game-high four steals in 35 minutes.
"They've been doing that for a couple of weeks now," Payne said of the freshmen stepping up again. "They have been playing very well. Garrett [Golday] is trying to find his way and is playing so hard that he is playing himself out of some plays. But he's had some moments this season where he's been really good.
"We have a couple of freshman at home that had a couple of knee injuries and we had to redshirt this season. I think they're going to be fantastic players for us. I'm very optimistic about the future and I'm glad we are going home with a win. It's always great to go home on a win."
Tillery finished with eight points and three boards while Henry contributed six points, nine rebounds, three blocks and a career-high three steals.
"I thought Mike [Micaiah Henry] was outstanding tonight," Payne professed. "He had nine rebounds, which is a good night for him on the glass. He really made them miss shots around the rim, he fought all night. I didn't know if he was going to play. At warm-ups, he looked like 'I don't know if I can go or not.' I thought he really spread the floor and set our defense up in transition. He had the rim covered. I thought his activity was great tonight."
Tech out-shot one of the hottest, 3-point shooting teams in the Ohio Valley Conference, sinking 39.1 percent from distance to Eastern Illinois' 18.2 percent showing from downtown. The Golden Eagles managed five more steals on the day and outshot EIU from the field, 44.2 percent to 37.1 percent.
"This game was like a lot of our games," Payne said. "Outside of the Belmont game and the UT Martin game… this has been a typical game for us. We made a couple of stops when we needed to have them and we grabbed a couple of tough rebounds with little guards late in the game, and then we hit a big shot and hit our free throws. I'm happy for the kids.
"We've been in these situations all year, and tonight, we figured out a way to win. Hopefully that will carry over to next season. These guys have a lot of basketball left in them."
Photo by Thomas Corhern