By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Kesha Brady and Mackenzie Coleman led Tennessee Tech's 45-point bench effort, and Kentoria Alexander scored a career-high 16 points as the Golden Eagles broke out of a first half slump to fly past Murray State 74-65 in front of 4,087 guests in the Eblen Center Saturday evening.
TTU moves to 16-5 on the year with the victory, and 8-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference. With eight league contests remaining, Tech has already posted eight wins, which is the highest total over the program's last five seasons.
"A really good win – a much needed win," said head coach Kim Rosamond. "We didn't play well the first three quarters, especially on the offensive end, but I thought we started to find ourselves when we went on that run at the end of the third quarter to take the lead. Then, in the fourth quarter, we just made play after play on both ends of the floor."
Brady scored eight of her team-high 17 points in the first half, which helped Tech keep pace with Murray State despite its 36.7 percent shooting performance from the field. Brady also canned the team's only 3-pointer out of 11 attempts in the first 20 minutes (.091).
The Smyrna native now has back-to-back games with at least 12 points after being held to single digits in each of the five games prior.
"I think Kesha's last two games have been her best two games," Rosamond said. "When we were struggling in that first half, especially in that first quarter, I thought she gave us such a huge spark with her energy and with her effort defensively. She was huge, and I felt like she kept us in the game."
The Golden Eagles only hit six threes in the contest, but knocked down three of them during an 11-3 run that gave Tech the lead midway through the third quarter.
When Murray clawed back to take a two-point lead late in the period, Alexander hit her second buzzer beater in three days, finishing at the rim to knot the score at 48.
Alexander led the offense in the second half, where she collected 14 of her 16 tallies in a team-high 17 minutes. In what may have been the best game of the senior guard's career, she added seven rebounds, four assists and two steals, while committing only two turnovers.
The Tullahoma native has elevated her play over the last three games, having recorded at least 13 points and six rebounds in each.
"Kentoria Alexander has been our engine," Rosamond said. "She is just playing at a really high level, and playing the way you'd hope a senior would in February."
Alexander's determined drive to the cup took back the momentum, and set Tech up for its most impressive 10 minutes of the ball game.
The fourth quarter marked Mackenzie Coleman's turn to be dynamic, as the sophomore forward poured in 10 of her 15 points in the final stanza on 4-of-5 shooting.
Coleman's combination of size and agility allowed her to wreak havoc on Murray's interior defense throughout the quarter. She gave Tech the lead with a basket 13 seconds in, was targeted during several key possessions in the middle stages, and made 2-of-2 late free throws to help put the game away.
It was another encouraging outing for the 2017-18 OVC All-Newcomer Team honoree, who has struggled to find consistency in her second year.
"Tonight – and in the (Eastern Kentucky) game too, Kenzie was huge for us," Rosamond said. "She came off the bench and looked confident, and that's what we're trying to get her back to. Kenzie's got all the tools that she needs to be one of the best players in this league, and she just has to get her confidence back up. I thought she was good on both ends of the floor for us tonight, and really played a huge part in that fourth quarter."
"Coming back from my injury, it's been a bumpy road, but I'm getting back to where I need to be," said Coleman. "I'm getting my confidence back, and I think I can only take this and go up from here."
Alexander had an impressive fourth quarter in her own right, scoring seven points and distributing four assists. Between scoring and facilitating, she accounted for 16 of Tech's 26 points in the fourth.
Anacia Wilkinson continued her stretch of tremendous play, contributing eight points and team highs in rebounds (10) and blocked shots (4) in a career-high 28 minutes.
Wilkinson, the team's leading rebounder at 6.8 per game, now has at least eight boards in seven of her last eight games, and has at least three offensive caroms in her last four games.
The Ohio Valley Conference leader in blocked shots now has nine games this year with at least four rejections.
Between Brady, Coleman and Wilkinson, three of the top four Golden Eagle scorers came off the bench, and with five points from Megan Clark, outscored Murray reserves 45 to 2.
"There is no question that we are very, very deep," Rosamond said. "You saw that again tonight. I was really pleased with the people that came in the game, and I thought they were ready to play."
Abby Buckner played a solid all-around game with seven points, a career-high five assists, three rebounds and one steal.
Her five assists shared the team-high with Akia Harris, and contributed to a night where the Golden Eagles recorded 16 helpers on their 26 field goals.
As it has many times this season, Tech iced the game with its free throw shooting. The Golden Eagles went 16-of-21 from the line in the game, but were near-perfect when it mattered most, knocking down 11-of-12 tries in the fourth quarter (91.7 percent).
"I thought down the stretch we hit huge free throws," Rosamond said. "I thought we hit every free throw that we had to."
Adding to the atmosphere in the Eblen Center were the 4,087 fans in attendance. It was Tech's largest turnout since Feb. 25, 2012, when the TTU-Murray State game drew a crowd of 6,512 people.
The game was also Tech's Play4Kay game, a special women's basketball initiative designed to raise cancer awareness and unity in support of those affected.
"This is our third year participating in this, and it's such a great initiative in women's basketball," said Rosamond. "It's something very near and dear to our hearts. The Kay Yow Cancer Fund is such a tremendous cause, and does so much to raise money, not only for breast cancer, but for all female cancers. So for our players to be able to honor cancer survivors, along with those no longer with us, is something really special."
Tech will embark on the second-to-last road trip of the regular season next week, squaring off with Southeast Missouri on Thursday evening, Feb. 7, and UT Martin on Saturday afternoon, Feb. 9.
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information