By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
ROCK HILL, S.C. – A thrilling finish helped showcase the growth of the young Tennessee Tech men's basketball team Thursday night, as the Golden Eagles hung on late to defeat a strong Winthrop program on the road, 61-58.
"We're so excited about the win for these guys," Tech head coach John Pelphrey expressed. "We had two really good days of practice, but there's still so much room for growth. Just as much as we try to learn from losing or failure, we're going to try and learn as much in victory. Our next game is coming and there's just a lot for us to learn from this."
Tech again depended on what has become the overlying strength of the team in recent games, a stout defense that held an Eagle offense averaging more than 72.6 points and nine made 3-pointers per game to just 58 and six, respectively. The purple and gold forced 17 turnovers in the affair, including 11 in the first half alone.
Winthrop, who earlier this season scored an upset victory of No. 18 St. Mary's, led by as many as six points in the first half, but it was the Golden Eagles that took the lead into the half, 28-24. Tech came out sizzling to start the second stanza, opening the final 20 minutes on an 18-6 run. With just under 11 minutes to play, however, the Eagles mounted a comeback.
Trailing by 16, Winthrop needed just four minutes to force six Golden Eagle turnovers and embark on its own 15-0 stretch to pull within just a single point and send Winthrop Coliseum into a frenzy. The youth-laden Tech team stepped up on offense and locked down on defense, never allowing the home team to take back the advantage.
Needing a bucket, junior forward Larry Kuimi found some room and maneuvered in for a clutch score. Back-to-back made jumpers by sophomore guard Hunter Vick turned it into a much-needed 6-0 run by the visitors, stretching the lead back to seven.
With two minutes to play, Winthrop sunk a pair of free throws to pull back to within two, but Tech would only bend, not break. Sophomore forward Amadou Sylla, who put forth a mammoth effort on the glass to the tune of nine boards, hit a big jumper to keep the Golden Eagles with some breathing room.
Again, the Eagles answered, this time with a fastbreak dunk with 48 seconds to play after Tech's final turnover of the contest. Trying to run the clock down and get a good shot, the Golden Eagle offense found what it was looking for in the hot-handed Vick. Freshman point guard Keishawn Davidson spotted Vick in the corner for an enormous triple to put the purple and gold on top by five with 19 to play.
Winthrop's Hunter Hale wasted little time in heaving up an NBA-range trey, burying the clutch shot with 11 seconds on the clock to pull back to within two. From that point on, it came down to free throws. Vick made two separate trips to the charity stripe, both with the added pressure of just a 1-and-1 attempt.
He calmly drained his first two before another Hale 3-pointer cut the lead to one with two seconds to play. Again, Vick visited the line. And again, Vick hit both tries, sealing the first road victory of the season for the Golden Eagles.
Tech hauled in nine huge offensive boards on the night, including seven big ones in the second half alone. Overall, the Golden Eagles outworked the Eagles on the glass 21-11 over the final 20 minutes.
"Second shots are always killer to the other team," Pelphrey explained. "Amadou, Larry, Darius (Allen), those guys just got us a lot of second-chance opportunities to score. I thought there were moments in the game too where the floor was really spaced well. Jr. (Clay) and Tae (Tujautae Williams) were huge in getting down the lane and into the paint and throwing that ball back out for some really beautiful opportunities from the 3-point line for Hunter and Darius. It was exciting to see those guys stand up."
In the first half, it was Allen pacing the Tech offense, scoring 11 of his 16 points over the opening 20 minutes. The second half turned it over to Vick and Sylla, who combined for 20 points over the final 20 minutes. Vick tied Allen with a game-high 16 points while Sylla added 13 points to his nine boards and two blocks.
Jr. Clay was a floor general on the night, dishing out a season-high nine assists. Allen and Williams chipped in five rebounds each on the night as well.
"I think a road win like this means you're starting to see some signs of culture," Pelphrey said. "Again, we've got a long way to go, but there's some guys in that locker room that's figuring it out. They're putting their heart and soul out there. A win in this environment, hopefully, will give us a lot to learn from and give us some experience and confidence.
"I just shared with the guys, most college basketball games now are coming down to the last four minutes. A lot of that four minutes, we did not do very well, especially on the offensive end. I thought defensively, we hung in there and forced some tough shots. I thought Amadou was unbelievable with his rebounding on both ends of the floor. Jr. Clay bounced back tonight with nine assists. Tae Williams was really composed out there for the most part as a freshman. You could just go on and on. Hunter Vick just made some huge shots down the stretch and closed the game out there at the free throw line."
The win snapped a four-game skid by the Golden Eagles and ends the team's four-game road stretch on a high note headed into its final contest prior to a week-long break for Thanksgiving.
"Let's give these guys a lot of credit," Pelphrey added. "It was a hard week last week. You had four games in the week with a tough loss to Wright State, and then end up catching three teams that were playing really good basketball, one of which was on their home court. And it didn't go very well for us. So for me, that's winning. Just staying with it, getting off to a good start. I think we started the first four minutes of the second half as the most aggressive team. I think we won that four-minute war too. There are a lot of positives for us to build on. For me, with the 343rd youngest team in the country – that is a real stat – for them to be able to do this is great. But there's still room for us to grow."
The Golden Eagles will return to the comfort of the Hooper Eblen Center Monday, Nov. 25 for an in-state clash with Lipscomb. The 6:00 p.m. CT tilt represents the first of two bouts with the Bisons on the year, with the second slated for Tuesday, Dec. 17 in Nashville.
Season tickets for Tennessee Tech basketball are on sale now. Call (931) 372-3940, visit the Hooper Eblen Center ticket office, or log on to TTUSports.com to order yours today.
Photo by Thomas Corhern