By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
CHARLESTON, Ill. – The members of the Tennessee Tech women's basketball team stood inside their locker room, water bottles at the ready.
After all, they had waited for this moment for a long time.
No, the Tech women didn't win the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season championship, but for what the program had gone through in recent years, it might have felt the same.
A 20-win season, its best since the 2010-11. Its most road wins since the same year. The most OVC wins for Tech since 2012-13. For what had been a long journey – one that is far from over – it certainly was a cause for celebration.
"This team is enjoying this journey so much," said Tech head coach Kim Rosamond. "Even the tough times, you know? We have been taught some great lessons in the month of February. Thursday was very disappointing to us, but what a great lesson we learned today and be able to respond the way we did. Not only are they learning things on the basketball court, they're learning things that they're going to be able to take with them 20 years from now in their lives.
"Just the connection and the chemistry that this team has is just so very special. No one's ready for that journey to be over. You can't win the conference tournament unless you get in it, so to be able to come back from a season where we only won seven games and have the turnaround that we've had, and go to Evansville on a high note and finish fourth in the conference, it's just a special story in itself. But it's a credit to those young women in the locker room and the work they did in the offseason, their commitment they have to the program, but also to each other. I am a really proud coach."
Before all was said and done in the locker room, every single member of the Tech team was drenched from head to toe, coaches included.
Tennessee Tech won the game 68-51 on Saturday, topping Eastern Illinois on its home court at Lantz Arena, and with all of the exuberance, that certainly wasn't an afterthought.
"Our motto for this game was '40 for 20,'" Rosamond said. "Forty minutes for 20 wins."
And after Thursday night's heartbreaking loss at SIUE, the Golden Eagles (20-9, 12-6 OVC) weren't going to let this final opportunity slip away.
"None of us were pleased with how we played Thursday night," Rosamond said. "What I love about our team – and it's the DNA of our culture – is our response. I loved their response today.
The first story of the game, obviously, was Akia Harris' effort. Harris ended the game with a career-high 27 points, shattering her previous best of 22 against Eastern Kentucky in the 2017-18 campaign.
"Akia had the best game she's ever had as a Golden Eagle and it couldn't have come at a better time," Rosamond said. "We needed it today. She was so efficient, I couldn't take her off the floor. But what she did was make everyone on the floor better and it's what we preach in our program – do something for somebody else. In return, good things happen to you. Akia did just that today."
She was perfect from the floor, going 8-for-8, and hit all six of her 3-point attempts. In fact, the only shot she missed was a free throw, going 5-for-6 at the charity stripe.
"I really wasn't focused on myself," Harris said. "I was trying to help my teammates. I was open and I just made the right decisions. After Thursday night, we really wanted this game. To get the win was just tremendous."
But it just wasn't Harris. It all just came together the way Rosamond wanted it to.
"It was a total team effort," Rosamond said. "We had so many people that did a lot of little things that maybe don't show up on the stat sheet. They're a tough team to guard – we gave up 80 points to them at our place. To hold them to 51, we had a lot of people that really dug down and defended. Again, rebounding is not our strength and we have to continue to improve in that area, but any time you can outrebound a team, good things are going to happen. While we still gave up too many offensive boards, we still outrebounded them. That was big."
Seniors Kentoria Alexander and Lacy Cantrell also put up solid numbers, leading the team in rebounds with six each. Alexander also scored in double figures with 11 points and had four steals, while Cantrell chipped in seven. Kesha Brady also added nine points to the tally.
"I thought our seniors were key and I'm just really proud of them," Rosamond said. "They played like you expect seniors to play in March. Lacy was such a physical presence and she played with such composure. While she was 3-for-4 and only took four shots, we scored because we went inside-out. She gave us such a great presence.
"Kentoria, I'm just so proud of her. She was a kid, last year, that no one guarded from the 3. She's really worked on her shot and, today, goes 3-for-4 from the 3. She also had six big rebounds, four steals and three assists. Her stats line was just really solid."
Eastern Illinois led the game 12-11 at the end of the first quarter, but the Panthers' advantage lasted just a minute and three seconds. After that, it was total control by the Golden Eagles as they just continuously built their lead. Tech outscored the Panthers 18-10 in the second, 21-16 in the third and 18-13 in the final 10 minutes to go up by as many as 17 with just over two minutes left in the contest.
Tech held every player on the EIU lineup in single-digit scoring and kept them shooting at 37.5 percent for the game. The Golden Eagles, on the other hand, shot 56.1 from the field for the game, including a 71.4-percent effort in the final 10 minutes.
Of course, shooting 57.9-percent from 3-point range didn't hurt either as Tech set the pace early on with its scorching 3-point shooting.
"That's what we do," Rosamond said. "You have to bring your strength each night. When you don't, you have to find other ways to win. We didn't shoot the ball well in the month of February. We were 11-of-19 and 58 percent from 3. That's huge. When you knock down shots, it cleans a lot of things up. We did that tonight."
Jalisha Smith and Karle Pace led EIU (11-18, 5-13 OVC) with nine points apiece, while Taylor Steele and Grace Lennox each had eight.
So the Golden Eagles enjoy the celebration for the long trip back to Cookeville. After all, they deserved it.
But even Tech knows the journey is far from over – the Ohio Valley Conference Women's Basketball Championship starts Wednesday in Evansville, Ind. It's a whole new season and anything can and will happen in tournament time.
The Golden Eagles just had to get there, something a year ago they didn't get to do.
"We came out here determined to make a statement," Harris said. "This is how we're going to play in the tournament."