By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Tech men's basketball team couldn't overcome a large, second-half rebound differential Saturday night, as the Golden Eagles (6-11, 2-2) fell in the Eblen Center to visiting Ohio Valley Conference Eastern Illinois (10-7, 3-1) by a final score of 67-60.
A defensive war from the opening tip, Tech jumped out to an 8-0 lead early on the night, holding the Panthers scoreless until more than five minutes into the game. EIU chipped away in the opening stanza, cutting the lead to five midway through the period before a 9-2 Tech run extended the advantage to 12 points with just under four to go.
Eastern Illinois responded with a 10-0 run to close the half, taking advantage of a few Tech turnovers and miscues offensively, but the Golden Eagles still owned the lead, 27-25.
"Obviously I didn't get us ready to rebound the ball," head coach Steve Payne said. "I thought we started the game very well and for the first 16 minutes of the first half, I thought we completely dominated the game. We were in great shape, but turnovers; we will never know how good we are going to be unless we take care of the ball and rebound."
In the second half, the Panthers gradually worked themselves into a lead and kept it for good with 13 minutes to play. Tech cut the deficit to within three with 5:36 to go thanks to fast-break dunk in traffic by Courtney Alexander II, drawing a foul for a three-point play opportunity.
It was the glass in the second half that truly decided the outcome of the contest, however, as EIU dominated to the tune of a 26-10 advantage on the boards, leading to 13 second-chance points over the final period.
Tech made 18 turnovers in the game while forcing 14 on the Panthers. Tech also finished the contest 8-of-14 from the charity stripe, finding it hard to get to the line for a team averaging 22.7 attempts per game coming into the night.
"Without Jr. in the lineup, maybe we are going to turn it over a little more," Payne said. "Maybe that's to be expected. We're not a free throw shooting team. We're going to miss some free throws. That's just who we are by now. We need to rebound it a little bit. That's about effort there."
Despite the offensive miscues, the Golden Eagle defense looked strong at points on the night, holding the league's top 3-point shooting team by percentage coming in to the game to just 26.3 percent on the night, over 10 percent lower than their season average.
"We held a very good offensive team to 37 and a half percent from the floor and 26 percent from 3-point range," Payne explained. "We played excellent first shot defense and we just could not get a rebound with a 6-8, 6-9, 6-11 lineup out there and a 6-3, 6-4 two-guard out there. Just couldn't go get a rebound. I thought we became very discouraged when we turned it over and our competitive spirit went away. I just didn't do a good enough job of getting them on the glass.
"I thought our defensive game plan was good, but I'll take full responsibility for our lack of rebounding. We'll fix it in practice. We're making such great strides. We're so much better than we were a month ago, but I was very disappointed in our toughness tonight and our willingness to be physical and compete."
The Special Olympics Player of the Game, redshirt freshman Hunter Vick, led all scorers with 20 points. It marked his fifth such performance of the season, the second-most by a Golden Eagle rookie in program history, trailing only Earl Wise's (the program's all-time leading scorer) 12 during the 1986-87 campaign. He finished 6-for-12 from the field with three triples and a perfect 5-for-5 from the line. He also dished out three assists.
Corey Tillery joined his backcourt mate in double figures, scoring 13 points with four triples and four assists. Alexander led the Golden Eagles with nine rebounds, five assists, two blocks and three steals.
The Golden Eagles will return to the hardwood next Thursday, playing host to in-state and OVC rival Tennessee State in a rematch of their January 3 tilt to kick off league play. Tech edged the Tigers, 66-64, in Nashville in the contest. Tip is scheduled for a 6:00 p.m. CT with the game being telecast nationally on ESPNU.
Photo by Thomas Corhern