By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
EAST LANSING, Mich. – A late rally against one of the nation's top programs came up just short for the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team Saturday afternoon, as Michigan State (7-4) defeated the Golden Eagles (4-7) in the Breslin Center, 71-63.
Trailing by as many as 18 points in the first half, the Golden Eagle offense exploded over the final five minutes of the period, nearly doubling its prior output for a 13-5 run. At the break, the Spartans lead was trimmed to 10 points, 37-27.
Both sides blasted out of the break on a mission, trading blows over the first seven minutes before the hometown Spartans began to edge the lead back out again. With just seven and a half minutes to play, Michigan State had it back out to an 18-point game, leading 64-46.
It would be four minutes before the Golden Eagles would allow another score, chipping away at the Spartan advantage little-by-little. Junior Mason Ramsey, who was limited to just 19 minutes of action due to foul trouble, made a nice little jumper just outside the paint to kick off a small run.
Two minutes passed before fellow junior Aleksa Jugovic torched the nets for a triple from the corner on a Golden Eagle fast break opportunity. On the other end, the guard snagged a loose ball rebound and started another fast break for the visitors, drawing a foul to send the game to the last media timeout.
Jugovic knocked down both freebies after the break, cutting the lead to 11 points with just under four minutes to play. Sparty finally added to the scoreboard, sinking 1-of-2 free throws before Tech took the ball back and immediately received a clutch 3-pointer off the hands of senior Kajon Mack. In just over four minutes, Tech had the lead back into single digits.
The Golden Eagles kept attacking and, after a fastbreak layup from senior Hakeem Rogers made it a seven-point game, had a huge opportunity to really make the more than 14,000 Michigan State fans in attendance sweat. Rogers drew a foul on the play and walked to the line with a chance to make it a two-score game.
The ball came out just flat, but Mack out-leapt multiple Spartan players to snag the offensive rebound and immediately found an open Jugovic beyond the arc. The Golden Eagle sharpshooter watched as his attempt just missed falling and cutting the lead to four.
The Spartans, who struggled from the charity stripe the majority of the night, made its last four attempts and a dunk to go back up by 11 before a final triple from Jugovic provided the final score of 71-63.
"I think we competed very hard," head coach Steve Payne said. "Some of the keys for us coming into the game were transition defense, fighting for every rebound and taking care of the basketball. I thought if we did those three things we would put ourselves in position to at least be competitive."
All-in-all, Tech managed to force 13 Michigan State turnovers and kept pace on the offensive glass on the day. The Spartans out-shot the Golden Eagles from downtown, providing the real difference in the score. Tech finished 5-for-14 from beyond the arc while MSU connected on 10-of-25 attempts.
The Tech defense really locked down over the final 20 minutes allowing Michigan State to shoot just 34.8 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from downtown after posting marks of 58.3 and 50.0 percent in the first half.
The Golden Eagle free throw shooting kept the team in it early, as Tech finished 10-of-11 in the first half. Overall, the visitors tallied a 72.7 percent showing at the line for the game.
All 12 Golden Eagle players saw action with nine scoring in the contest. Junior Curtis Phillips Jr. made his Tech debut against the Spartans, finishing with nine points and three rebounds in 26 minutes of action. The wing sat out the team's first 10 games of the year due to NCAA transfer rules.
Jugovic led Tech with 14 points and a career-high two blocks while Mack added 12 more on 50 percent shooting. Sophomore Courtney Alexander II corralled a game-high 10 rebounds while being limited to 22 minutes due to foul trouble. Rogers tallied nine points as well.
"When you're competitive, you've got to make plays," Payned explained. "When there's an opportunity to make plays to tighten it up and win the game, you've got to do those things. I credit them. They're always under control and always seem to get the shot they want. Every time we tried to make a push, it seemed like Eron Harris had an answer for it. But I'm proud of our guys. I thought that was a step forward for us."
The Tech squad will be back in action Tuesday evening, making the 100-mile trip down I-40 for a 6 p.m. CT tilt with in-state rival Tennessee.
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information