By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Beating your old conference rival? Good. Being responsible for its first loss of the season? Great. Emerging victorious in the series for the first time in almost 14 years? It doesn't get much better.
The Tennessee Tech women's basketball team experienced all of those feelings firsthand as it held off a second-half rally from Middle Tennessee on Friday night to claim the program's first win over the Blue Raiders since December 9, 2004.
"Even for our struggles in the third quarter, I thought we continued to play as a basketball team," said head coach Kim Rosamond, who joined Tech legends Marynell Meadors and Bill Worrell as the only coaches in program history to beat MTSU. "(The players) believed in themselves and they believed in each other, and it was so fun to watch them grow up and make the plays they had to make down the stretch. It shows you that we are growing in our process. There are still some steps to take, but this is a big win tonight."
Middle Tennessee knew it was in for a battle right away, as Tech came out firing on all cylinders. The Golden Eagles buried seven of 10 field goals and all five of their free throws to hold an eight-point advantage after 10 minutes (20-12).
Murfreesboro native Abby Buckner was a key component in TTU's fast start, as she collected seven points and made all three of her shot attempts in the opening stanza. Lacy Cantrell was another important piece, as she got her third straight double-digit scoring game started early with five points in the first, and converted on a layup at the horn that sent her teammates into a frenzy.
Cantrell finished with 14 points on the night on six-of-eight shooting, while Buckner came up just short of double-figures with nine points.
Cantrell's exclamation point helped set the tone for a second quarter that saw Tech extend its lead in dominant fashion. The home team poured in 19 points – led by seven from Cantrell – and stifled the MT attack with tremendous defense. The Lady Raiders turned in their worst shooting performance of the contest in the second, 22.2 percent, which gave the Golden Eagles a 16-point lead at the half, 39-23.
"We were really confident and aggressive (in the second quarter)," Rosamond said. "We changed up our offense this year and went to one more focused on dribble penetration. We really felt like they would struggle with the dribble drive, and they did in the first half. We got the drives, but we also knocked down the shots, which is something we hadn't been doing very well prior to this game.
The floor seemed to tilt the other way in the third quarter, as Middle began chipping away at the Tech lead with what seemed like every possession. MT's A'Queen Hayes, who was eligible immediately after playing for Eastern Kentucky last year, scored 12 of her game-high 21 points in the third quarter, as the Raiders used an 18-4 run over the first eight minutes to cut the lead to three points heading into the fourth.
"They raised their energy, they raised their level of intensity, and that's what championship teams do," said Rosamond of Middle's third quarter rally. "Those kids have been to the NCAA Tournament, they've won conference championships and they know how to win. They weren't going to lay down. We got a little passive on the offensive end and let our offense affect our defense."
With the momentum squarely on the side of the visitors, it was obvious that Tech needed a lift in the final period. Just in the nick of time, that lift came from one of the most dependable guards on the roster, Akia Harris.
With Tech trailing by a point, 55-54, the junior from Chattanooga went on a 7-0 run by herself. She started with a pair of free throws, added her only three-pointer of the game on the next offensive trip down the floor, and ended with a crucial layup that supplied the Golden Eagles with a six-point cushion with 3:24 to play.
"Akia responded with some huge plays," said Rosamond. "She really put us on her back in that fourth quarter."
"Coach kept talking about how they were going to go on their run and that we needed a response," Harris said. "We came together, and I just tried to take what the defense was giving me, and make the right plays for my teammates."
While Harris' heroics brought the energy back to the Eblen Center, the Golden Eagles weren't out of the woods quite yet.
A Hayes layup made it a one-point game again, and this time Anacia Wilkinson stepped up to save the day. The senior from Houston, Texas buried a jumper from the elbow to make it a three-point Golden Eagle lead with 35 seconds left, then secured a defensive stop with one of her career-high six blocks to force Middle into a fouling situation.
Unfortunately for the Raiders, forward Anna Jones was a little too cavalier with her notion to foul, and was credited with an intentional foul drawn by Kentoria Alexander. Jordan Brock was TTU's selected shooter and knocked down both tries to make it a five-point game. TTU would hit three of its four additional foul shots down the stretch en route to the 68-64 victory. All in all, the Golden Eagles shot 18-of-22 from the charity stripe for the game (.818).
Recapping the rest of the statistics for Tech: Brock scored 13 points and went 3-for-7 from behind the arc, Megan Clark and Wilkinson each scored four points, and Alexander, Kesha Brady and Taylor Lamb all recorded three points. Alexander also had a team-high four of TTU's 15 assists.
Now, the Golden Eagles move on to another nonconference home date against Western Carolina on Monday night at 6 p.m.
"Since our staff got here two years ago, it's been all about the process, and that's what we'll continue to focus on," Rosamond said. "We'll enjoy this one tonight, but come tomorrow morning, we've got another big game against Western Carolina to prepare for. We're going to figure out how we can continue to get better so we can become the team we want to be when the OVC season comes around in January."
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information