By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
GEORGETOWN, Ky. – In a fast-paced, high-scoring, roller coaster of a ball game, it was the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team that came out on top Saturday night, racing to the finish line for a 91-85 victory over Ohio Valley Conference rival Eastern Kentucky.
The Golden Eagles (7-14, 3-5) snapped the Colonels' (10-11, 3-5) three-game winning streak and their own four-game skid with the victory, one that took every ounce of effort to pull off in a very steamy Davis-Reid Alumni Gym.
"We've dealt with a lot of different stuff this season injury wise," Tech head coach Steve Payne said. "Even with Micaiah [Henry] being sick tonight – he tried to play but he just really didn't have it. They're good kids. They're tough kids. We're a little late developing as a team and we still need to get better, but we're starting to do things that win games. I thought we played fairly well at Morehead, we just didn't hit any shots. Tonight we hit some shots. I'm just very proud of their effort, toughness and competitive spirit."
The contest, played on the campus of Georgetown College due to a scheduling conflict at EKU's home gym, featured 40 turnovers, 47 fouls and 55 free throw attempts between the two teams. But it never featured a double-digit leader, as the Colonels held the game's largest advantage of eight points with six minutes to play.
Relentless energy from senior Courtney Alexander II fueled the Golden Eagle comeback, as did strong offensive showings from Malik Martin and Corey Tillery. And of course, point guard Jr. Clay flirting with a triple-double didn't either.
Clay just missed out on the rare feat, achieved just twice in program history, "settling" for a team-high 22 points, eight assists and nine rebounds. And with a strong showing across the board, it was his ninth and final rebound of the contest that meant the most.
With Tech clinging to a three-point lead with 16 seconds to play, the six-foot Clay outworked not one, but two Eastern Kentucky forwards to corral a missed free throw and draw a foul. He made his second free throw of the two, all but icing the contest for the Golden Eagles.
The true freshman finished 8-for-11 from the field and 3-for-4 from downtown in 36 minutes of action.
Alexander showed off his extreme athleticism, despite dealing with cramping early in the contest. He turned in arguably the most passionate and complete performance of his career, finishing with 10 points, eight rebounds and whopping seven steals, as well three assists. He hit multiple huge free throws down the stretch as well and never let the Golden Eagle youngsters get too low when Eastern Kentucky seemed to be pulling away.
As crucial as any Golden Eagle to the victory on the night was Martin, a graduate transfer from USF. The veteran rebounded from a tough couple of contests on offense by dropping 17 points and eight boards, including 10 in the second half.
"They're supposed to be good players," Payne said of Alexander and Martin. "We're counting on those guys to be good players. Malik needed to get back to being a good offensive player and tonight he was. He was solid defensively. When Courtney plays with the kind of energy he played with tonight, defensively and rebounding the ball, he has such an impact on our team. He's such a winner when he does that, such a leader when he does that. That's really the key to our team, is that front line being really good."
A quiet assassin from deep, Tillery found his shot over-and-over again, particularly when his team needed it most. The junior connected on 5-of-9 from downtown on his way to 18 points while playing 33 minutes off the bench. He was 3-for-4 in the second half, hitting a dagger with 2:27 to play to give Tech a five-point lead.
The Golden Eagle offense was humming on all cylinder for much of the night, equating to a 54.2 percent showing from the field and 50 percent performance from downtown. Tech hit 11-of-22 tries from deep, helping overcome a slow start at the charity stripe.
Coach Payne, who spent four years as the associate head coach at Georgetown College from 1996-2000, enjoyed the night maybe a bit more than anyone else. Payne was introduced to his wife, Kelli, at center court of the same Davis-Reid Alumni Gym. One of his fellow coaches during his tenure at Georgetown, Keith Greisser, sang the national anthem prior to tip.
To say the victory meant something special would be an understatement.
"It's like home," Payne expressed. "Coach Greisser, who sang the national anthem before the game, was on staff with me when I was here. Coach [Happy] Osborne, who I worked for when I was here, was here tonight. The security guards are still the same as when I was here. I had a lot of family and friends here tonight. There are a lot of ties here. It's always good to come home and get a win and tonight is no different."
The Golden Eagles will head back to Cookeville and enjoy the comfort of the Hooper Eblen Center for a pair of contests beginning Thursday evening, Jan. 31. Tech will play host to in-state rival Austin Peay at 6:00 p.m. in a match-up that will be televised nationally on ESPNEWS.
Photo by Thomas Corhern