Defense, 3-pointers ignite early surge, Tech tops Alabama A&M

Defense, 3-pointers ignite early surge, Tech tops Alabama A&M

Photo: Tiara Hopper had 17 points on a solid shooting night (photo by Tony Marable)

Three players score 17 to pace Golden Eagles to season-opening victory

View video comments of Tacarra Hayes on Monday's victory

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – It was tough to determine which was more impressive in the first half, Tennessee Tech's smothering defense or the blazing offensive pace set by the Golden Eagles. 

Either way, the Golden Eagles took control of their season opener in the opening minutes Monday night in the Eblen Center with a 17-0 run and then held on against a furious second-half effort by Alabama A&M to post an 82-67 non-conference victory over the scrappy Bulldogs.

Junior Tacarra Hayes and sophomores Kellie Cook and Tiara Hopper each scored 17 points to pace the Golden Eagles.

"When Kellie came in and we went on the 17-0 run, to me that was the difference in the game," said second-year coach Sytia Messer. "This game was won in the first five minutes, not the last five minutes."

Tech (1-0) went on top 22-4 in the opening seven minutes behind a deadly combination that forced several early Bulldogs turnovers and led to some red-hot shooting by the Golden Eagles. Cook drained three jumpers in a row to give Tech an 11-4 lead, followed by three consecutive 3-pointers by Molly Heady, Rachel Glidden and Cook to widen the gap to 18 points.

Alabama A&M (0-1) got some offensive production late in the half, but the Bulldogs were only able to whittle the difference down to 19 points, 39-20, with 3:04 remaining on back-to-back baskets by Renee Brantley and Brittney Strickland. Hopper scored the final six points of the half and Tech maintained a comfortable margin, taking a 45-20 lead into halftime.

The break seemed to breathe new life into the visitors, who shot 61 percent in the first nine minutes of the second period and limited Tech to just 26 percent accuracy. It allowed Alabama A&M to slice the margin to 12 points, 55-43, with just over 11 minutes remaining.

Hayes and Cook each answered with baskets and the lead crept back to 16 points, and the best the Bulldogs could do after that was pull within 14, at 64-50, with 7:57 to go. The lead grew back to 20 in the final three minutes before settling on the final 15-point difference.

After going 0-for-5 from 3-point range in the first half, the Bulldogs hit 5-for-12 in the second half from outside the arc. They finished the game hitting 37.9 percent from the field overall.

Tech cooled off from a 5-for-10 first-half showing outside the stripe to go 0-for-4 in the second half. The Golden Eagles finished the game hitting 46 percent from the field and 35.7 from long range. Tech also shot 79.2 percent (19-for-24) at the free throw line.

Cook (photo at left), who has seen limited preseason practice time because of an off-season surgery, didn't look as though the layoff had affected her at all. The preseason all-OVC sophomore shot 8-for-11 from the field to finish with 17 points. She grabbed four rebounds in just 15 minutes on the floor.

Hayes, also a preseason all-OVC selection, added 17 points and led Tech with four assists while netting two steals. Hopper scored nine in the second half and finished with 17 points, going 5-for-7 from the field and 7-for-8 at the free throw line.

"I was really proud of Tiara," Messer said. "She came in and definetely gave us a spark."

Tech owned a 40-35 advantage in rebounds, led by Krystal Stirrup with nine. She also had five points and four steals. Freshman Molly Heady added seven points and six rebounds in her debut contest. Rachel Glidden had eight points and three assists.

Alabama A&M was paced by Whiquitta Tobar and Brittany Strickland with 21 points each. Tobar added four rebounds, four assists and three steals. Jasmine Sanders had a solid outing with seven points and a team-best eight rebounds.

Tech hits the road for its next two contests, visiting Nashville twice to play against A-Sun foes Lipscomb and Belmont. The Golden Eagles face the Lipscomb Bisons Thursday at 5 p.m., and will be at Belmont Sunday at 3 p.m.

Tech's next opportunity to play in front of a home crowd comes on Saturday, Nov. 27, when the Golden Eagles host Tennessee Wesleyan at 6 p.m. Tickets for the game, as well as season tickets, are on sale at the Athletics Ticket Office in Eblen Center or by calling (931) 372-3940.