By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
NICEVILLE, Fla. – Headed into the 2017-18, the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team boasted one of the most experienced units, not only in the Ohio Valley Conference, but in the entire nation, returning over 75 percent of its minutes played and 71 percent of its scoring from a year ago.
That experience and veteran leadership (Tech starts three seniors, a graduate student and a junior) led the Golden Eagles (5-1) to a thrilling, 86-85 victory over Omaha (0-6) in the Emerald Coast Classic Friday morning. Trailing by one point with just over 30 seconds to play, junior Courtney Alexander II intercepted a pass on a full-court trap and found senior Aleksa Jugovic under the basket for the game-winning layup.
"You have to win some you're not supposed to win, and trust me, we were not supposed to win that one," head coach Steve Payne said. "They're not going to give you that kind of game too many times like they did there. I do think we upped our intensity level defensively with the press and made them a little cautious."
"We were in full-court man, trying to get a trap and a steal on the first pass to transition into an easy bucket," Alexander explained. "We knew we were down and had to get a stop. A.J. and I have a great connection. I saw him cut in and I was like 'here you go A.J.' and he finished for us."
Despite sporting an 0-5 record headed into the match-up, Tech knew Omaha would pose much more of challenge than their early start indicated. The Mavericks had played four straight on the road and posted an impressive showing at No. 18 Louisville, losing by just nine points while outscoring the Cardinals in the second half.
"That bunch with that coach is not going to give that to us many times," Payne explained. "We need to play better throughout the course of the game, rebound the ball a little better and take of the care of the ball. I thought we took some quick shots on offense in the second half that kind of gave them some momentum and energy."
The Golden Eagles eased out to a seven-point half-time advantage, pounding the ball inside the paint for 24 of the team's 42 first-half points. KJ Robinson kept Omaha in the game in the first half, hitting his first four 3-point attempts.
Robinson's teammates would join him in unloading a barrage of threes in the second half, with the team hitting 9-of-15 from deep, including three more from Robinson. That performance from downtown, plus an 11-for-13 showing at the charity stripe erased an 11-point advantage the Golden Eagles rushed out to in the first two minutes of the period.
With their opponents hitting like crazy from deep, Tech never strayed from what helped give them the lead in the first place, pounding the rock inside. The Golden Eagles scored another 24 points in the paint in the second half, never letting Omaha gain a lead of more than five points.
Graduate guard Kajon Mack scored 10 of his season-high 19 points in the second half, dishing out five assists, while Jugovic dropped 14 of his 17 points over the final 20 minutes as well, none bigger than the go-ahead bucket.
After a Mason Ramsey layup tied the ball game at 82-82 with just over two minutes to play, Omaha's JT Gibson hit what seemed to be the biggest shot of the day, a triple off a pass from an offensive board by Daniel Norl. Both sides traded misses until Alexander drew a foul by Norl with 33 seconds on the clock.
A career 35 percent free throw shooter coming into the season, Alexander's shift to an underhanded stroke at the charity stripe paid massive dividends for Tech. After knocking down the first attempts, Omaha was called for a lane violation on the second try by Alexander that would rattle off the rim. The junior's third shot fell, however, shaving the deficit to a single point.
Alexander then jumped a pass by Norl out of the trap and found Jugovic at the rack for the game-winner. Omaha missed two attempts late, with Tech coming up with the second rebound to clinch the come-from-behind victory.
"I told our guys, 'be good at winning. If you're not doing anything else, be good at winning,'" Payne said. "And that is a prime example of just being good at winning, because we weren't very good at much else. We didn't execute, we didn't take care of the ball, we didn't rebound the way we wanted to, but we were good at winning. And I'm proud of them for that."
Ramsey led the Golden Eagles with a career-high 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting and a 4-for-5 showing at the line. Mack added 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, not to mention two steals. Jugovic had 17 points while knocking down three more triples.
Alexander put together one of his best games in a Tech jersey, collecting his third double-double of the season with 13 points, a career-high 15 rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
"He had half of our rebounds." Payne said. "We were not rebounding the basketball very well today and he just went out there and grabbed them. You can't leave a guy like that out of the game. He's starting to get comfortable offensively and starting to make some plays. He's playing well and I'm tickled to death with him right now. He just needs to keep getting better."
"I know I can do that for this team," Alexander said of his performance on the glass. "I just try to get my team some easy buckets and extra possessions and do whatever I can to help us win."
Robinson led the Mavericks, finishing with a game-high 25 points. Gibson chipped in 15 points while Lamar Wofford-Humphrey tallied 14.
The Golden Eagles will face Maryland Eastern Shore in one of two championship games of the Emerald Coast Classic, facing off with the Hawks at 12:30 p.m. CT. UMES defeated Jackson State 66-63 following Tech's victory over Omaha.
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information