By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – For the last time in their collegiate careers, five members of the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team took to the court in the Hooper Eblen Center Saturday evening. The result was bittersweet, as visiting Jacksonville State (20-11, 11-7) defeated the Golden Eagles (18-13, 10-8) in their regular season finale, 66-57
"It was a tough night, but I thought our guys played extremely hard," head coach Steve Payne said. "It wasn't like we played poorly, we just finished poorly. We didn't make the shots we needed to make from the perimeter when we did get open looks. A lot of credit goes to their defense, their athleticism and size. We got around the rim, I just don't think we finished well. Defensivley we were very good. I thought we got out of character early in our press and gave up some layups late. They're a good team. I'd like us to shoot better than 31 percent, but you have to give them a lot of credit for us shooting 31 percent."
A defensive struggle from start to finish, the Golden Eagles just couldn't quite climb over the final hump in trying to erase a 12-point second-half deficit. Tech closed the gap to as close as three with just over four minutes to play, but the Gamecocks knocked down 13-of-14 free throws over the closing four minutes to take the win.
Tech's 3-point shooting kept the team in the mix early, as the team his 5-of-11 tries before halftime, despite being held to just 19 points and zero free throw attempts. Overall, the Golden Eagles finished the game shooting 31.1 percent from the field, 30.4 percent from beyond the arc and 75 percent from the free throw line.
The Golden Eagles pretty much held their own against one of the league's best rebounding teams, losing the battle on the boards by just six, 45-39. Tech also held the Gamecocks to under 40 percent shooting and a paltry 12.5 percent showing from downtown. Jax State's edge in free throws (18-of-24) proved to be a difference maker, as the visitors knocked down 75 percent from the charity stripe.
Graduate guard Kajon Mack led all scorers with 16 points on the night, while fellow graduate Shaq Calhoun tallied 14 points with six rebounds. Senior Mason Ramsey posted 10 points in his final game in the Hoop while fellow senior Aleksa Jugovic knocked down a pair of triples in 23 minutes. Senior Curtis Phillips Jr. grabbed five rebounds while finishing with four points.
"This program means a lot to me," Mack said. "Coach Payne gave me a second chance, basically; he believed in me. I just wish we could have done it for the fans. That's really what hurts the most, because they support us so much."
With the conclusion of the Ohio Valley Conference regular season, the Golden Eagles will now set their sights on the OVC Tournament, scheduled to begin Wednesday evening at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind. Tech will enter the tournament as the No. 5 seed, squaring off with No. 8 SIUE at 6:30 p.m. CT.
"We have to flush it," Mack said about the loss when asked about the upcoming OVC Tournament. "We're back to 0-0 now. You best believe we'll be ready."
Photos by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information