Golden Eagles will play at UCLA at 4 p.m. CST Sunday
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – Kellie Cook caught fire, pouring in a career-high 36 points, and Tennessee Tech led throughout the game en route to a season-opening 87-76 victory over East Tennessee State Friday night in the Preseason Women's National Invitation Tournament.
With the win, the Golden Eagles advanced in the winner's bracket of the event and will play at UCLA at 4 p.m. CST on Sunday. The Bruins defeated McNeese State in their opening round game Friday night, 67-59.
Cook was brilliant from the get-go, knocking down a three-pointer to score the game's first basket and give the Golden Eagles a lead they wouldn't lose. When it was all said and done, the junior guard from Madison, Ala., had gone 9-for-12 (75 percent) from three-point range and 12-for-18 from the field. She also pulled down a team-high seven rebounds.
Senior guard Tacarra Hayes was a strong complement to Cook, coming up one assist shy of a double-double, scoring 21 points and distributing nine helpers.
"For the first time since I've been here, our team is made up of seniors and juniors, and Kellie and Tacarra showed that leadership tonight," said head coach Sytia Messer. "When they are both on, our team can play pretty well."
Tech's lead grew to as large as 23 points at the beginning of the second half, but East Tennessee State put together a late-game push to cut the margin to seven with 2:15 left to play, 72-65. It was Cook, however, who sealed the victory for the Golden Eagles, singing a three-pointer from the wing to stretch the lead back to nine, then draining another trifecta on the Golden Eagles' next possession to give Tech a comfortable 78-65 lead with 1:20 left.
Cook's 36 points blasted her previous career-high of 26 scored on Feb. 11, 2011 against Murray State. It was the first time a Golden Eagle had scored as many points since Tacarra Hayes poured in 39 on Jan. 21, 2010, against Austin Peay.
"I give God all the honor and glory," Cook said of her performance. "I was just getting open and my teammates were finding me. They had the assists and I was just able to hit the shots."
The Golden Eagles were hot out of the gate, jumping out to a 13-3 lead with 16:39 left in the first half. Cook scored 11 of Tech's first 13 points. East Tennessee came back, however, cutting the margin to four at 13-9, but Tech slowly stretched the advantage again and took a 10-point lead at 27-17 with 7:56 left in the half on a Briana Jordan layup.
From there, the Golden Eagles maintained a double-digit lead for the rest of the first half, pulling ahead by 19 with 3:35 left and taking their largest lead of the evening into halftime with a 48-27 advantage when Brittany Darling scored on a layup as time expired.
TTU maintained a double-digit lead through the second half until the 2:41 mark when East Tennessee's Tarita Gordon hit a three-pointer to cut the lead to nine at 72-63. It was the hot hand of Cook, however, that ensured the Golden Eagles improve to 1-0 on the 2011-12 season.
In addition to double-figure scoring nights from Cook and Hayes, the Golden Eagles got eight points from Molly Heady, six from Jordan and five from Brittany Darling. East Tennessee was led by Destiny Mitchell with 22 points and Tarita Gordon with 21.
The Golden Eagles overcame 27 fouls called against them, while ETSU was whistled for just 14. The Buccaneers' performance at the free-throw line (28-for-32) helped keep them in the game.
Tech outscored the Buccaneers 20-10 in the paint and 10-4 on second-chance points, while posting a 41-37 rebounding advantage.
The Golden Eagles will fly to Los Angeles on Saturday and face the Bruins on Sunday afternoon as part of the Preseason WNIT.