By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
EVANSVILLE, Ind. – Despite holding Belmont to 62 points, which equaled its second-lowest total of the season, the Tennessee Tech women's basketball team simply could not get enough shots to fall in their Ohio Valley Conference Tournament semifinal game on Friday afternoon, as the fourth-seeded Golden Eagles fell to the No. 1 Bruins, 62-48, at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind.
Tech moves to 21-10 for the year, and will now await a potential bid for a national postseason tournament.
The 21 wins are the second-most in school history since the 2005-06 season, making Kim Rosamond just the second Tech coach to record a 20-win campaign since the Bill Worrell era.
"I am beyond proud of Tennessee Tech and our players, and everybody in that locker room," Rosamond said. "It's a very, very emotional locker room right now because these kids love playing together and love playing for each other.
"I'm beyond proud of what these kids have done, what they've accomplished, and where they have taken this program in Year 3. I think the future is extremely bright for Tennessee Tech's women's basketball."
This was the first trip to the OVC Tournament for all but two of Tech's current roster players. One of the tournament rookies, sophomore Abby Buckner, highlighted the excitement of the experience, while announcing the team's plans to make a return trip next year.
"It's just been awesome, and the coaches have made it awesome for us," Buckner said. "Out there on the court I had butterflies, and I haven't been nervous all year. It's been an amazing experience, and we'll be back next year for sure."
Junior forward Anacia Wilkinson, who was part of the 2016-17 tournament-qualifying team, took the opportunity to reflect on the differences between then and now.
"My first year with Coach Rose we got to the tournament, and I can feel the difference," she said. "We're growing as a team, and the players are driving it. Our connection with each other is better than what we ever had before, and I just admire everything that we've done. In this tournament, we made it further than we did before, and its just one step at a time. We're going to be back."
While Tech's overall defensive effort in the game was more than respectable, Belmont orchestrated a pair of scoring runs that Tech could not match, which proved to be the difference.
The first one bridged the halftime gap, as the Bruins potted the last five points of the second quarter and the first seven in the third. What had been a one-point BU lead (26-25) with three minutes to go before the break became a 13-point margin two and a half minutes into the second half (38-25).
BU then opened the fourth quarter with a 10-2 spurt, which forced Tech to play much faster offensively than it is accustomed to down the stretch.
However, those two runs took less than 10 minutes of game time, and for the other 30, Rosamond took a great deal of pride in the toughness and grit exemplified by her young Golden Eagle team.
"I thought our team battled their hearts out today. If you would have told me before the game that we would have held Belmont to 62 points, I would have thought we had a great shot to win this game, but offensively, we just struggled."
Unable to find a rhythm on the other end, Tech went just 7-of-28 from the field in the third and fourth quarters (25 percent).
"What they do defensively is they try really hard to keep you in front," Rosamond said. "They don't allow you a lot of driving lanes to the basket, and then they clog the paint once you get there. They make you kick it out, and then you've got to be able to knock down open shots. I thought we did that in the first quarter. I thought we did that extremely well. As the game wore on, we just weren't able to finish shots."
Kentoria Alexander turned in her second career double-double, and led or co-led the Golden Eagles in points, rebounds and assists for the contest. The senior guard from Tullahoma recorded 10 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, played a team-high 37 minutes, and did not commit a turnover.
Abby Buckner was also in double figures with 10 points, and posted a team-high two steals. Jordan Brock finished with eight points and three assists; Kesha Brady added five points and seven rebounds; Lacy Cantrell, Mackenzie Coleman and Wilkinson all had four tallies, and Akia Harris chipped in three with four boards.
Without a postseason guarantee, Friday's tilt could have been the final one in a Tech uniform for seniors Alexander and Cantrell.
A junior-college transfer from Walters State Community College, Alexander saw massive improvement in every aspect of her game in her second season at Tech. After averaging 1.7 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 29 games last season, she surprised many with marks of 9.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.1 helpers, while starting all 31 games this year. Her assists per game rate ranks sixth among OVC distributors, while her rebounding average places in the top 15. She has also made 42.7 percent of her 3-pointers in 2018-19 (32-of-75), which is third in the Ohio Valley.
Cantrell has had a breakout campaign of her own, starting 25 contests, scoring in double figures eight times, and twice finishing as Tech's leading scorer. Cantrell opened the season with a bang, averaging 12.6 points over her first five games, with a pair of double-doubles at Xavier and Charleston Southern. In all likelihood, she will finish as Tech's leader in field goal percentage with a current clip of 60.3 percent.
"We only had them for two years, and I sure wish we had them for four," said Rosamond of her senior class. "They have really impacted our program, and one day, when we're on that court cutting down the nets, they'll be right there with us. They have left their legacy in so many ways – on and off the court. I'm going to miss them tremendously, and I'm also going to miss their families. I'm just extremely proud of both of them, and what they've done."
All in all, Friday's result did not – and will not – define the 2018-19 Tennessee Tech women's basketball team. While the improved statistical marks and various win totals show significant, tangible growth in Rosamond's third season, and are some of the best numbers the program has seen in eight years, the true story of this team is one that may not stand out to the casual fan.
The real story, as Rosamond detailed, is of a young basketball team that forged an intimate, seemingly unbreakable bond with one another, and in doing so, laid the foundation for a program primed to bring large-scale success back to Cookeville.
"It all starts with these kids, and what they stand for, and what they're about," said Rosamond, fighting back emotion. "Our culture is about connection, and this is a very connected basketball team. The players are connected to each other – they're connected to the coaches, the managers, support staff, and all you have to do is walk out (to the floor) to see they're connection to the fans. It's really special, and I am so excited about the future of where our program is going, and it all goes back to these young women right here."
"I'm emotional, but not because its over," said the head coach. "I hope we're still going to be playing. I think this team has done enough to continue playing in some type of postseason. I'm emotional because I think they deserve to be playing again tomorrow."
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information