By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – For the second time in three days, a furious comeback bid fell just short for the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team Tuesday evening as in-state rival Tennessee (5-4) downed the Golden Eagles (4-8) in Knoxville, 74-68.
The Golden Eagles fought back from a 22-point, second-half deficit to pull within four points with 20 seconds to play. Just two days earlier, Tech nearly erased an 18-point, second-half deficit at Michigan State, eventually falling to the Spartans, 71-63.
It proved to be a tale of two halves for the visitors from Cookeville, as Tennessee jumped out to a 43-25 halftime lead on 50 percent shooting. Tech shot just 37 percent from the floor over the first 20 minutes, despite sinking five of its last six shots to close the period. The Vols also forced seven turnovers of the Golden Eagles in the first stanza while making just one of their own.
The two sides traded blow after blow in the second half, playing relatively even basketball over the opening eight minutes. Following a media break at the 11:59 mark, the Tech defense entered some kind of "Beast Mode," forcing an inexplicable eight UT turnovers over the next five minutes.
Between the resurgence on the defensive end of the floor and uptick in scoring efficiency, the Golden Eagles chipped, clawed and scratched away at the home team's lead during the span, cutting it to single digits with under five minutes to play.
Tennessee seemed to gather itself for a few minutes, holding the attack of the Tech squad within a 10-point arm's reach as late as the three-minute mark, but still the Golden Eagles fought. A beautiful fake pass from sophomore Savonte Frazier to a heavily guarded Aleksa Jugovic left junior Mason Ramsey with an open parking lot between himself and the bucket with 2:44 to play.
The big man finished with an easy layup to shave it to an eight-point game. Senior Hakeem Rogers followed with a big defensive board on the other end of the floor and kicked off a quick transitional play that would finished with the guard burying a step-back triple to pull the Golden Eagles to within five with under two minutes on the scoreboard.
UT snapped the little 5-0 run with a free throw, but sophomore Courtney Alexander II dropped a dunk on the opposite end of the floor with 21 seconds to play to make it a four-point ball game. The Vols would go on to hit 3-of-4 attempts at the charity stripe to Tech's one in the closing moments of the game, pulling out the six-point victory in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Despite the loss, Tech visibly out-played the Volunteers over the final 20 minutes, posting a 43-31 advantage on the scoreboard. The Golden Eagles shot 50 percent while holding UT to just 40 percent and forced a whopping 13 second-half turnovers. Tennessee's work on the glass (39 to 31 advantage) and from the line (76.2 percent to 68.8 percent) proved the ultimate difference maker in the end.
For the second time in as many contests, Jugovic led the Golden Eagles with 14 points, despite being constantly hassled and arguably roughed up all night. He also hauled in five rebounds in an exhausting 36 minutes of work.
Three other Golden Eagles finished in double figures on the night, including Mack with 11 points, Frazier with 11 and Ramsey with 10. Ramsey also corralled a team-high six boards while Frazier dished out a game-high six assists in 20 minutes off the bench. Rogers chipped in nine points and Alexander posted six with five rebounds.
The Tech squad will get a nice three-day break before returning home to Cookeville for a rematch against in-state rival Lipscomb Saturday evening. The Bisons defeated Tech in a 104-85 decision in Nashville earlier in the season; a game that featured an unbelievable 67 fouls and tied two program records. The scheduled tip time for the rematch is set for 6 p.m. CT in the Hooper Eblen Center.
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information