By Nate Perry, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – After a slow first quarter, Tennessee Tech found its groove on both ends of the floor and overpowered Akron in its first-round matchup of the Women's Basketball Invitational Thursday night, using strong bench play and a dominant rebounding advantage to secure a 73-59 victory, and a berth in the tournament quarterfinals.
While playing in its first national postseason tournament since the 2011-12 season, the victory was Tech's first in such setting since it took down Belmont in the 2006 Women's National Invitation Tournament.
With the win, Tech advances to play Campbell in its on Monday, March 25. That game will tip at 6 p.m. CT from CU's Gilbert Craig Gore Arena in Buies Creek N.C.
"Well, it's great to still be playing," said Tech head coach Kim Rosamond. "Anytime you can advance in postseason play, it's huge. We beat a good team tonight. Akron is a good team out of a very, very good conference (Mid-American) that sent seven teams to the postseason. This is just a really good win, and it feels great to be able to continue on with this team."
Trailing 18-13 after the first 10 minutes, Tech would take control at the beginning of the second stanza with sound defensive adjustments, and the emergence of impact reserves Anacia Wilkinson and Kesha Brady.
"Defensively, we started switching every screen, because we just couldn't stay with them," Rosamond said. "There's just a lot of action within their offense, and they do a really good job of running their offense. We were getting hung up on screens, weren't getting through screens, and so to be able to go to our switching defense I thought made all the difference."
The move produced immediate results, as the Golden Eagles forced four Akron turnovers and got their transition game going, launching an 11-0 run over the first two and a half minutes of the period. Nine of Tech's 20 points off turnovers were scored in the second frame.
Wilkinson and Brady were the primary beneficiaries of the quickened pace, scoring all 11 of Tech's points during the opening spurt, and combining for 20 of its 24 in the quarter. With 13 tallies in the second, Wilkinson went to the locker room with the team-high.
"I thought Anacia and Kesha came in off the bench and gave us a huge lift," Rosamond said. "Then, we finally started to settle down and started getting defensive stops, getting out in transition, and scoring in the paint, and that just opened everything up for us."
The tandem finished as Tech's top two scorers in the game and accounted for 37 of the team's 39 bench points, a category where TTU took a 39-12 nod over the Zips.
Wilkinson poured in a career-high 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting to lead the way, while Brady had 18 on 4-of-9 from the field, 2-of-3 from 3-point territory, and a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line.
"We got back to doing that," said Rosamond of the bench production. "When we were having a lot of success throughout the season, that was a constant. The rebounding might not have been a constant, but the bench play was a constant when we had success, and that is definitely a strength of our team."
Tech's other definitive run came in the later part of the third quarter, when the Golden Eagles blew open an eight-point game with a 12-0 jaunt that gave them a 20-point lead with just over a minute remaining in the quarter.
Akron would get back to within 10 points late in the fourth, but the game's outcome was never in question following the Tech's third-period onslaught.
The rebounding effort Rosamond mentioned, was spectacular. The Golden Eagles hauled down 47 boards in the contest, and ended with an incredible plus-23 margin, over UA – close to double their previous season high (plus-13). A whopping 17 of the team's rebounds came on the offensive end.
"We felt like another area that we could really attack them was on the boards," Rosamond said. "You don't hear me say that much because our strength has not been rebounding all year, but we felt like this was a game coming in where we could control the boards, and had to control the boards."
In addition to her scoring prowess, Wilkinson was also a beast on the glass, grabbing a team-high 11 rebounds for her third double-double of the season. The Houston native has now led the team in rebounding in 12 games this season, more than any other player.
The redshirt junior, who was presented with a ball prior to the game commemorating her Tech-record 80 blocks on the year, added four more to her total on Thursday. In the process, she moved into a tie with Terrance Oglesby for third on Tech's all-time career list with 128.
"Coach Rose talks about it all the time," Wilkinson said. "We could be the team that's sitting at home, but we're not. We have this great opportunity to play again. It's not a bigger tournament that we're in, but we're still playing, so any opportunity that we get, we need to seize the moment and go after it."
"A lot of people don't know everything that this young woman has gone through just to be able to do what she's doing this year," said Rosamond of Wilkinson. "Most kids would have quit because of all that she had to fight through, and it looked very bleak at times, but she loves the game and she loves her teammates."
Alexander was once again heavily involved in several statistical categories, as she finished as TTU's third leading scorer with 15 points, keyed by a career-high eight free throws (8-of-10).
She also had six of Tech's 19 assists in the game, which was second on the team to Akia Harris' nine. The club's 19 helpers were their highest total since recording 22 against Eastern Kentucky on Feb. 21.
Harris's nine assists matched a season high, and gave her 138 for the season, which is fourth-best in the Ohio Valley Conference. It also improved her career total to 362, moving her into a tie for 10th on the Tennessee Tech program leaderboard.
Led by Alexander and Brady, Tech showed once again why it is among the national leaders in team free throwing shooting, scoring 22 points from the line on 26 attempts (84.6 percent). Out of 32 games this season, the Golden Eagles have recorded a team mark of 80 percent or better from the charity stripe in half of them.
"I thought the kids executed the game plan," said Rosamond. "I have to credit Coach (Melanie) Walls – we found out at 9 o'clock on Monday night who we were playing, and we walk in Tuesday morning and she's got a game plan, she's got an idea of what we need to do, and she just did a tremendous job with the scouting report."
"Then, credit our kids. As a coach, you can put together the best scouting report there is, but if your players don't execute it, then it doesn't work. I thought our kids did a great job of sticking to the game plan and executing it tonight."
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information