By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn – The final score showed a 10-point loss for Tennessee Tech women's basketball against Xavier on Sunday night, but those who saw the game know the gap between the two teams was closer than that.
Tech cut the Xavier lead to five points with less than two minutes left, but the Musketeers' free throw shooting allowed them to swell the lead to its final margin.
"I thought we played hard and showed a lot of toughness," said head coach Kim Rosamond. "Obviously we're disappointed. This was a group that expected to win tonight, but came up short. Now we have to learn from this and grow."
Despite being on the road against an opponent from the prestigious Big East Conference, Tech was not intimidated by Xavier, nor by the mystique of the Musketeers' 10,224-seat Cintas Center.
The Golden Eagles raced out to a 15-9 lead to begin the game, frustrating Xavier defensively with three steals. Xavier came back to tie it at 17, but TTU would remain ahead at the quarter break thanks to a Kesha Brady three-pointer that made it 20-17.
Brady finished with a team-high 14 points and added three steals, but perhaps more important was the noticeable confidence she played with. The sophomore from Smyrna looked a lot like the player she was prior to her season-ending injury last year, the one who averaged 10.5 points over her first 13 collegiate contests.
"I saw the fearless Kesha Brady again," said Rosamond. "I saw her attacking the rim and being aggressive defensively. Her body language was totally different tonight. Her mentality was totally different."
"And that's how it goes with an athlete coming off a knee injury. The body is healed, but the mind is still healing. We're getting to a much better place with Kesha, and she is working really, really hard to get herself to where she needs to be."
TTU was outscored 19-13 in the second quarter, but kept itself well within striking distance at the half, trailing 36-33. Akia Harris and Jordan Brock each had five points in the quarter, while Taylor Lamb entered the game and grabbed five rebounds in eight minutes.
Harris was Tech's second leading scorer with 12 points, and added a team-high five assists. Harris, and senior Lacy Cantrell, are the two Golden Eagles to have scored in double figures in both contests to start the season.
After hitting a dry spell offensively to open the second half, Tech saw Xavier's lead grow to as many as 11 points at 46-35.
Cantrell subbed into the game at that point and rejuvenated the lineup, contributing four points and three rebounds in just two minutes of third quarter action. She filled up the stat sheet again in the fourth quarter, adding another bucket, five rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot.
The senior from Knoxville would total 10 points and 10 rebounds for her first career double-double, and received credit from her coach afterward for providing the spark (15-5 run) that got the Golden Eagles back into the contest.
"Lacy Cantrell was tremendous," Rosamond said. "That's two straight games that she's come in and really given us some great minutes and a big-time lift. I thought she battled on the offensive boards, got some put-backs, and brought an energy that picked us up when we fell behind."
Cantrell's final deuce brought the deficit back to within a point (51-50) with eight minutes to play, but that would be as close as TTU would get. The Xavier offense, led by Ariana Gray's 24 points and 10 rebounds, kept the Musketeers in front, and 9-for-12 free throw shooting over the final 1:17 sealed the deal down the stretch.
Tech featured excellent balance offensively, as seven of the 10 players who entered the game had at least four points, which keyed a 26-11 advantage in bench tallies.
Jordan Brock scored seven points and dished out four assists, Anacia Wilkinson had six points, six rebounds and a blocked shot, Abby Buckner totaled five points and three rebounds, Kentoria Alexander had four points and seven rebounds, and Taylor Lamb had two points and five rebounds to round out the scoring for the Golden Eagles.
"We've got the talent, we've got the right personnel, we're getting tougher both mentally and physically, and now, we've got to see who is going to step up in the big moments and get the stop, knock down the big shot, make the play to put us over the hump. We've got a lot of kids on this team who can do that, we just haven't done it yet.
The next opportunity to get it done comes Friday night in the Hooper Eblen Center, as Tech's oldest rival, Middle Tennessee, comes to town for the series' 99th installment. Tip time is 6 p.m.
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information