By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – It seemed only fitting that on a night fans saw the Tennessee Tech men's basketball donned in its alternate gold, the Golden Eagle squad seemed to possess the Midas touch. Tech tickled the twine early and often on its way to blitzing Alabama A&M Thursday evening, 95-61.
Stuck in a rut from both the field (.356) and from beyond the arc (.218), Tech used a lighting-rod of a performance by junior guard Markell Henderson to guide its way to a significantly strong night offensively. Making his first career start, Henderson lit up the scoreboard to the tune of a career-high 30 points on 11-for-15 shooting, including a 5-for-8 showing from downtown.
"That wasn't lucky, that was earned," head coach Steve Payne commented on Henderson's performance. "That guy has worked hard. His first year here was a rough year for him and I was hard on him. He's talented, he's worked hard and he's mentally tough. He's going to have more great games. He isn't going to score 30 every night, but he's going to have some other big games here. He definitely earned that game tonight."
The Boswell, Okla. native was so hot early, he tied his previous best scoring output in the game's first six minutes. And the rest of the Golden Eagle squad followed his lead early. After a Henderson triple resulted in a 3-0 lead, the Golden Eagles fired off a 12-5 run, enjoying a 10-point lead at the first media break.
"I told the guys to just keep shooting," Henderson said. "Eventually the shots were going to fall and the game was going to take over. Just keep shooting. We came out and hit that first shot of the game. That calms your nerves down and makes you feel confident."
While the shooting from both the entire Tech squad, as well as Henderson, would come back down to earth towards the end of the half, the team still finished the game with impressive showing from the field (.587) and from 3-point range (.476).
With the offense flowing the entire game, the Golden Eagle defense was able to calmly give the Bulldogs fits, forcing 16 turnovers on the power of a season-high 11 steals. Coupled with another strong effort on the glass – Tech out-rebounded A&M 36-30 – the defense made its especially tough on the Bulldog shooters, holding the visiting bunch to just 37.7 percent shooting.
Back to the offensive side of the ball, it wasn't just the shooting that made an impression on the fans in the Eblen Center. Ball control was at an all-time high Thursday evening, as the Golden Eagles made just five turnovers in the contest while dishing out 26 assists. The five turnovers tied the school record for least in a single game while the 26 dimes represented a team-high under the tutelage of Payne.
"We went with a completely different substitution pattern that took us a couple of games to get to," Payne said. "I like it. I think it gets guys I need on the floor more, but last year we had seven guys. This year, we're playing 10 and I feel pretty good about No. 11. You can't argue with the performance tonight. I thought we executed against the zone well. We got them in man-to-man and we felt pretty confident against a man-to-man team."
While the Golden Eagles enjoyed a comfortable, 44-32 advantage at the break, the team clearly wasn't satisfied with the effort, posting better numbers on both sides of the ball in the second half. Tech outscored the Bulldogs, 51-29, over the final 20 minutes, shooting 62.5 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from deep.
Henderson wasn't the only player donning gold to enjoy a career night, as sophomore point guard Savonte Frazier set numerous personal bests in his best performance as a Golden Eagle. Frazier set career-highs with 14 points, a team-high seven rebounds, a team-high six assists (with zero turnovers to boot) and all in a career-high 25 minutes of action.
"Savonte earned the game he had today as well," Payne remarked about Frazier's strong performance. "Toughness and heart is a talent he has and I'm proud of those guys as a group."
Fellow sophomore Courtney Alexander II was just about perfect on the night, finishing 6-for-6 on the floor (he was 0-for-2 at the charity stripe) while hauling in six rebounds and setting personal bests with three assists and three steals. Tulane transfer Kajon Mack put together another solid effort, despite being limited to just 15 minutes after early foul trouble. The senior guard notched 11 points on 4-for-4 shooting with five assists and zero turnovers.
Tech's 95 points marked the most by a Golden Eagle squad since hanging 101 on Mississippi Valley State last November.
"That was a much needed win," Payne said. "We needed something good to happen. We kind of pressed offensively in the last two games and it wasn't that we just weren't shooting the ball well in the first two games, we needed to find our consistency defensively and rebound the basketball. No matter what, on Sunday, we're still going to play a really good Sam Houston State team, then we have to go down there [to Huntsville] to play [Alabama A&M] again. This score never matters when you go down there."
The Golden Eagles will end their three-game home stand Sunday afternoon as part of Legend's Weekend. Tech will play host to Southland Conference favorites Sam Houston State in a 2 p.m. CT tilt and fans who can't make it out to the game can follow the action live on the OVC Digital Network or on 106.1 The Eagle.
Tickets are available at the Eblen Center ticket office, by calling (931) 372-3940 or by visiting www.ttusports.com.
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information