By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – It took an extra five minutes, but the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team outlasted SIUE in Ohio Valley Conference play Thursday night, defeating the visiting Cougars in overtime, 78-69.
"I'm very proud of our guys," Tech head coach Steve Payne said. "We asked them to rebound the ball better and we were plus-15 on the glass. We did a lot of really nice things, besides taking care of the basketball. I thought we played the way we need to play to win conference games."
The Golden Eagles (6-10, 2-1) took advantage of the overtime period, holding the Cougars (5-10, 1-2) without a field goal and finishing the game on an 11-2 run. The Tech defense forced SIUE to miss all 10 attempts from the floor in the extra time, giving its offense plenty of room to work.
Tech made all three of its attempts from the field in the overtime period and sank 5-of-8 tries at the charity stripe, but it was a fade-away jumper by graduate transfer Johnnie Vassar with just over a minute remaining that really made its mark. The Golden Eagle faithful broke into a roar with the make and continued as the purple and gold knocked down four of its final six free throws to ice the game away.
"I was really proud of how we came back in overtime," Payne said. "We had a couple of tough calls go against us early and then we just kept grinding. I've been waiting for this team to have the toughness and leadership to get through adversity better, and they did that. I'm very happy with our team."
Showing some of that toughness and leadership was the Special Olympics Player of the Game, junior Micaiah Henry. The big man tallied a double-double with 14 points and 10 boards in the contest, playing 33 minutes. He dished out a career-high four assists and tied a career-high with four blocks while shooting 4-for-6 from the field and impressive 6-for-8 showing at the line.
In the overtime period alone, Henry made his only field goal attempt, dished out an assist, blocked a shot and grabbed three rebounds.
"I just want to be aggressive and really keep plugging the whole game," Henry explained, "really be tuned in defensively. Like Coach said earlier, if we're going to go big, we have to punish them inside. So I just want to make sure my presence is felt."
Helping in making the presence felt on the block was graduate transfer Malik Martin. The seven-footer notched 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting, including a 2-for-4 showing from 3-point range. He also posted four assists and hauled in nine rebounds, narrowly missing his own double-double. Martin played a career-high 41 minutes, the most by a Golden Eagle this season.
Leading the Tech scoring effort was redshirt freshman Hunter Vick, who showed grit and toughness while playing 39 minutes, despite taking two apparent elbows to the face during the contest. With a black eye slowly appearing as the game wound down, Vick finished his night with 18 points and six rebounds, sinking three tries from downtown.
Jr. Clay, who was limited to just 18 minutes after leaving the game with an undisclosed injury, came back off the bench and continued to fight, closing his night with 11 points and five assists.
On the night, Tech shot 54.2 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range. The Golden Eagles earned a 49-34 advantage on the boards, despite snagging just five offensive rebounds. The Cougars did force 19 turnovers by the Golden Eagles while making just eight themselves, but Tech blocked six SIUE shots in the contest while having none of its own rejected.
"We have to be good defensively and rebounding the ball," Payne said. "And then the next thing, which we always tell them, we won't know how good we are going to be unless we take care of the ball. We didn't do it tonight. We can't be really good unless we can take care of the basketball on top of playing defense and rebounding. Once we start taking care of the ball, we'll be okay."
For some, it may not come as a shock that once the game reached an extra period, the Golden Eagles came out on top. Those who know their purple and gold would recognize that Coach Payne was a sizzling 7-1 in overtime games heading into the night, improving that mark to 8-1 with the victory.
In fact, Tech's only overtime loss in the Steve Payne era came in double overtime of the first round of the 2016-17 OVC Tournament. Murray State's Jonathan Stark hit a go-ahead 3-pointer in the closing seconds to lift the Racers over the Golden Eagles 85-84. Tech claimed an 87-81 victory over Tennessee State in Nashville last season in its most recent overtime affair prior to Thursday's contest.
With the win, Tech stays undefeated in the Eblen Center when facing the Cougars, boasting a perfect 5-0 mark all-time in Cookeville. It also marked Tech's fifth straight overall win over SIUE and represented the Golden Eagles' fourth straight season winning its first OVC home game.
The Golden Eagles will look to move to 3-1 in league play on Saturday, playing host to Eastern Illinois in the second half of doubleheader action with the women's team. The Tech men's squad is scheduled to tip at 7:30 p.m. CT after the 5:30 p.m. start of the women's contest.
Photo by Thomas Corhern