By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – As the old cliché goes, it was a total team effort for the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team Friday evening. But as cliché as its sounds, that's exactly the kind of effort that led the Golden Eagles to a dominant, 94-56, season-opening victory over Midway University.
"I'm very proud of how we played," head coach Steve Payne said. "I thought we had a slow start, but this is the first time we've played in front of anyone. Part of that first night out is getting a feel for where we're at. I always tell guys, in games like this, don't make each possession more than it is. Just do the next thing right, make each possession count and if it goes wrong, we'll fix it. Just keep playing hard and worry about the next thing. I thought they did a good job of that."
A relatively tight contest through the first seven minutes, Tech started to pull away as the first half progressed, taking a 48-32 lead into the locker room. Tech opened the second half on a 29-3 run that put the contest away for good.
As a team, the Golden Eagles shot 55.2 percent from the floor, 37.0 percent from downtown and 71.4 percent from the line. Five Tech players scored in double figures and 10 of the 11 players to see the floor scored at least two points.
Junior forward Courtney Alexander II, who started the contest and played a game-high 25 minutes, attempted just a single shot, instead cleaning up the garbage around the rim and facilitating to his teammates. He finished with nine rebounds and five assists.
The win gives Tech its 39th in 41 home openers in the Eblen Center, and winning always feels good.
"For the first game, it's a good start," Payne said. "I just told them in the huddle, 'don't take this for granted. There are a lot of team that will lose tonight. You played hard and did some good things. But I don't ever take this feeling for granted.'"
Curtis Phillips Jr., who was named the Special Olympics Player of the Game, led all scorers on the night with 18 points on 7-for-12 shooting, adding six rebounds and three assists. Mason Ramsey had a monster first-half, pouring in 16 points while hitting seven of his first eight shots.
Making his Golden Eagle debut, Shaq Calhoun chipped in 15 points and four rebounds off the bench, sinking 3-of-5 attempts from beyond the arc. Senior guard Aleksa Jugovic and graduate guard Kajon Mack both scored 10 points in limited action. Mack flirted with a triple-double despite playing just 21 minutes, adding seven assists and six rebounds to the mix.
"I think we have fire power," Payne explained. "Last year we had a couple of guys who had to really perform well offensively for us to have a good night. I don't think this team is like that. We have a bunch of different guys that can score the ball. We're still learning to execute and play together with our new guys, but there are a lot of places we can go on offense to get buckets. We had three guys on the bench injured and they will offer some different looks as well. We're looking forward to getting healthy and continuing to improve every day."
Returning an Ohio Valley Conference-best 77.3 percent of its minutes played certainly seemed to help the veteran-laid squad, as did mixing in the production of the new players on the roster. And Coach Payne knows the value in having so much experience back.
"It's big," Payne exclaimed. "We have some mature guys. Those five seniors have all been through the war and they played like it tonight. There was never a sense of panic when we weren't playing well early on. That's really the only time you'll get in trouble in these games, is if you panic early and start pressing. And our veterans won't let us do that. They're mature enough to prevent that.
The Golden Eagles will head to TCU for its first road contest of the season on Monday, Nov. 13, playing the reigning NIT champs in an 8:00 p.m. CT tilt.
"It gets harder," Payne added. "Obviously, it gets harder every game as we move on in our schedule. Those veteran guys are the rock of our team. Late in the huddle I told them 'if it's important early it's important late. Everything we are is what we are no matter what the score is, and those guys reinforced that. It's a blessing to have those guys. I think people are really going to like our new guys too. I though they all gave us something tonight."
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information