By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – It came down to the wire, but the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team came up just short Saturday night, falling to the visiting Murray State Racers in front of a raucous crowd of over 5,000 fans in the Eblen Center, 67-63.
In a game that never saw a double-digit leader, the Golden Eagles (7-16, 3-7) did a lot of the right things to win the ball game, but missed a few shots late that eventually let the Racers (17-4, 8-2) ice the contest with free throws.
"I'm proud of how our guys fought and battled," Tech head coach Steve Payne said. "We put ourselves into position to win a game against a very good team. I thought we did a lot of nice things. Foul trouble hurt us. Courtney [Alexander II] had to sit most of the second half. We put the ball in the place we wanted to put it when the game was on the line. We had a couple of layups in the post that we missed. We had a wide open three off a rebound, hustle play that we missed with the guy we want shooting it. If those go in, it's a different game."
Tech held a one-point lead when the three-point miss allowed a fastbreak opportunity for the Racers. Murray State captured the lead, 61-60, with an alley-oop dunk with 90 seconds to play and would never surrender it the rest of the way.
With 28 seconds to go and the Golden Eagles trailing by three, point guard Jr. Clay split the defense and took off for the rim, seemingly drawing a foul on his way to the bucket. The whistle never blew, however, and the Tennessee Tech bench was called for a technical foul after its reaction to the play.
Murray State's Ja Morant, who led all scorers in the contest with 28 points, sank one of the two technical shots and picked up two more on the ensuing possession, making it a six-point game. Clay responded by hitting an NBA range triple with multiple defenders on him with 13 seconds to play to make it a one-possession game again.
Morant sank one more freebie for a 67-63 lead. Tech got a couple of looks at the basket in the closing seconds, but nothing went down as the Racers hung on for the victory.
"Even the last play; it's a three-point game and Jr. gets to the rim," Payne explained about the finish. "I thought he got fouled and went ahead and just took the hit. I can't be any more proud of our guys and how they played. I think that's the kind of team that we can be. We didn't play perfect, but we competed very hard."
Tech outrebounded the Racers 39-34 and pulled even in the turnover department, forcing 17 miscues by the league's least turnover-prone team.
Clay led the Golden Eagles in scoring for the fourth straight game, inking his fifth 20-point outing in the purple and gold to tie fellow rookie Hunter Vick for the second most such performances by a freshman in program history. The point guard scored 22 points, hitting multiple big-time shots throughout the night, including both of his triples. He added five assists and a pair of steals.
"Jr. is a good player," Payne said. "He's been a good player for us all year. He's been a clutch player for us all year. He's been the big shot guy. He has to work really hard to get the ball back in his hands and he's still learning how to make good decisions. It's a work-in-progress with our young guys, but I thought they really played well."
Vick chipped in 13 points and four rebounds in the contest while Malik Martin posted his first double-double as a member of the Golden Eagles and second of his career. The USF graduate transfer scored 14 points on 50 percent shooting and snagged a career-high 12 rebounds.
The 5,250 fans in attendance made up the largest crowd in the Eblen Center since Murray State visited Cookeville with a 27-1 record during the 2011-12 campaign. That contest saw over 9,000 people flock into the Hoop. Saturday's crowd of over 5,000 was engaged for both sides throughout the night, fueling mini runs by both teams.
"I appreciate the crowd," Payne expressed. "It means a lot to our guys. They play hard and they deserve it. Sometimes our emotion and energy doesn't show through, but when you have a building like this with the crowd we had tonight, it's easy to find emotion. I think we're capable of beating any team in our league, it's just key for us to this team all the time."
Clay added about the energy from the crowd, "It definitely helps a lot. That's probably the best atmosphere I've played in, especially at home. It was definitely fun playing in front of all that energy and everyone being engaged into the game."
Tech will now hit the road for a two-game swing in OVC play next week, starting with a trek to Cape Girardeau, Mo. for a match-up with Southeast Missouri on Thursday, Feb. 7. Tip is set for 7:30 p.m. CT in the Show Me Center.
Photo by Thomas Corhern