COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The old fable about the tortoise and the hare? This one was a tale of the tortoise and the…tortoise.
Tennessee Tech and Tennessee State were sloooooow starting Thursday night in the Eblen Center, and scoring came at a crawl on both sides. Tennessee State (8-7/2-0 OVC) picked up the pace — slightly — in the second half, and the Tigers were able to cross the finish line with a sloppy, 72-66 Ohio Valley Conference victory for their third win in a row.
Which isn't to say the Golden Eagles (6-8/0-2 OVC) didn't rally to make it an exciting finish. Tech scratched it's way back to within three points, 65-62, with just 1:16 remaining but didn't have quite enough kick left to pull out the win. Tech never found the range, shooting 36.8 percent from the field (21-for-57).
Patrick Miller scored 21 points and dished out five assists to lead TSU. M.J. Rhett added 15 point and grabbed 11 rebounds and Jordan Cyphers scored 14. The trio combined to shoot 17for-23 at the free throw line. Deshawn Dockery also reached double figures with 10 points while Kellen Thornton finished with eight points and 10 rebounds.
The Tigers shot 52.4 percent for the game (22-for-42) and had a 37-33 rebound edge.
Junior Jeremiah Samarrippas netted a career-high 22 points to lead all scorers in the game, draining five 3-pointers. He also had three assists and two steals. Freshman Lanerryl Johnson added 21 points, one shy of his career-high, and Jud Dillard finished with 13. Dennis Ogbe (in photo below) grabbed a career-best 13 rebounds.
Each team claimed a six-point lead in the first half, but TSU led for the first 17 minutes. Despite its shooting woes, the Golden Eagles hung around throughout the period before a bomb by Samarrippas gave the host team a spark.
The 5-foot-10 guard took an inbounds pass near center court as the shot clock wound down to nearly nothing, and launched a shot from about 36 feet that drew nothin' but net and tied the score at 22-22.
A minute later, Dillard made one free throw, and Samarrippas hit another three, and the Golden Eagles owned the lead for the first time all night, 26-22, with 2:40 remaining in the first half.
The Tigers tied the game at 29-29, before Tech claimed the final points of the half, a pair of free throws by Dillard, to head to the break with a 31-29 edge. The Golden Eagles had the lead despite shooting just 28 percent (7-for-25) in the opening half while TSU managed to hit 47.6 percent (10-for-21).
After Tech built a five-point edge, 36-31, just after intermission, TSU regained the lead quickly in the second half with a 6-0 run.
A layup by Johnson put Tech on top, 38-37, but it was the final lead of the night for the Golden Eagles. A 9-2 TSU run included a layup, dunk and assist from Thornton. The Tigers continued to add to the lead, going up by 10, 59-49, with 3:53 to play. The largest difference in the contest came when Miller hit one free throw with 3:03 remaining for a 12-point Tiger advantage, 62-50.
Johnson answered with back-to-back 3-pointers to bring the Golden Eagles to within six, 64-58, with 2:07 to play, and his jumper with 1:16 remaining allowed Tech to creep within three points, 65-62.
The Tigers made seven of their next nine free throws to keep Tech at arms length and overcome layups by Samarrippas and Johnson in the final 15 seconds.
The schedule doesn't get any easier for the Golden Eagles, who will host OVC newcomer Belmont Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the second game of a league doubleheader.