By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It took until the final buzzer to know once and for all how the 2018-19 Ohio Valley Conference season would start for the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team, but in the end, the Golden Eagles (5-9, 1-0) kicked off its newest quest for a league crown with a nail-biting, 66-64 victory over in-state rival Tennessee State (3-10, 0-1) Thursday evening.
A contest that never featured a double-digit lead and saw a couple of teams battling it out defensively, it was the purple and gold that came out on top, although not without a stunning ending to the night. It seemed only fitting that a series that had seen the past two games contested in Gentry Center reach an overtime period would come down to the final play with under a second left in the game.
Trailing by five, the Tigers' Tripp Davis drew a foul on a 3-point attempt with four seconds to play and went on to make the first two attempts, cutting the Tech advantage to 66-63. His third attempt clanked off the rim, but with the ball popping off of several players' finger tips, Davis corralled his own miss and drew another foul.
After a timeout, Davis would sink his first attempt, knowing he would have to miss his second try intentionally with just seventh tenths of a second remaining in regulation and hope for a tip in. He nearly received just that as Stokley Chaffee Jr. grabbed the intentional miss and threw up a shot that caught every bit of the rim.
Thankfully for the Golden Eagles, it caught too much, rolling off and preserving a tough, well-earned victory to kick off the conference season. It also represented Tech's first road victory of the season.
"You don't come up here and back your way into wins," Tech head coach Steve Payne said. "You need to earn them. We didn't do anything perfectly, but we really competed our tails off. The defense looked the best it has in a long time. We made some mistakes and still gave up some easy shots we don't want to give up, but in the end, if we rebound the ball better, that kind of performance defensively will give us a chance to have a nice year."
Tech won the contest thanks in large part to winning the turnover battle and making the same amount of field goals and 3-pointers as the Tigers. Both sides struggled from the charity stripe on the night, with the Golden Eagles managing to hit two more tries for the two-point margin of victory. Tech finished 22-of-36 for a 61.1 percent showing while TSU shot 20-of-32 for a 62.5 percent clip.
The Tigers owned the glass on the night, out-rebounding Tech 45-23 to garner an extra 10 field goal attempts in the contest. Tech's ability to finish with a more consistent touch – finishing at 47.6 percent from the field as opposed to Tennessee State's 38.5 percent – proved a huge difference. So did the turnover battle, as Tech forced a whopping 23 miscues by the Tigers while committing just 14 of its own.
While it took a strong team effort, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, it was freshman point guard Jr. Clay that made the offense hum for the Golden Eagles. The rookie dropped a season-high 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting, including a remarkable 19 in the second half alone.
"The result of us attacking the rim with post-ups and post feeds early was what you saw from him," Payne said of Clay's big game. "Early in the game we just kept scoring at the rim and did some really nice things. When that opened up the outside, we hit just enough shots to get a little separation. Those guys aren't freshman anymore. They've been through the wars. They're still in the freshman class, but they've played enough basketball now that they have to know how to play, how to execute and how to win games. That was a big step for them tonight."
The Golden Eagles will continue its road swing in Nashville on Saturday, visiting in-state foe Belmont in a 5:00 p.m. CT affair. The contest is scheduled to tip following the Tech women's contest against the Bruins which starts at 3:00 p.m.
Photo by Thomas Corhern