By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – It wasn't the approach that fans have come to expect so far this season, but the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team earned a hard-fought, physical battle that was determined at the charity stripe Wednesday evening, outlasting in-state rival Lipscomb, 86-80.
"Well obviously I think we beat a good team," Tech head coach Steve Payne explained. "They have a lot of guys back from a team that was very successful last year. I told our guys before we played them, 'They're a team that can win their league and they're a team that can win our league. You know if you win, you have to earn it.'"
Known this season for its prolific offense and strong numbers from the field and beyond the 3-point line, the Golden Eagles (7-1) were forced to earn their sixth straight victory from the one place they hadn't yet found consistency; the free throw line. Tech turned in 49 attempts at the line against the Bisons (4-3), by far the most by the team this season – the next closest coming with 32 at New Mexico.
Shooting 67.4 percent from the free throw line coming into the game – and having failed to shoot 65 percent or better at the line in back-to-back games this season – the Golden Eagles made their chances count, sinking 37 tries for a 75.5 percent mark.
"I'll take 76 percent all year long," Payne said. "There's a big key in that and that's Courtney Alexander being a really good free throw shooter. He's worked extremely hard to do that. It's also the right guys in a press offense getting the ball and getting fouled. I want him going up there and hitting 8-of-10. He should be a good free throw shooter. I expect Curtis to be 10-for-13, I expect Mason to be 3-for-3 and A.J. to be 5-for-5. Kajon probably needs to get his percentage up at 6-for-9 – that's not good enough for him."
The free throws were huge at each juncture of the contest, with Tech converting 14-of-19 attempts in the first half to take a 32-29 edge into the break. After extending the lead to 12 late in the second half, the Golden Eagles were able to hold off a rally by the Bisons by again sinking their free throws.
Tech hit 13 of its 17 attempts from the charity stripe over the final four minutes, closing out Lipscomb for good with two makes from senior Aleksa Jugovic, one of the program's all-time great free-throw shooters.
"This team should be a close to 80 percent free-throw shooting team," Payne added. "I did challenge them at halftime. I told them I hoped that we would hit every shot that we took in the second half, but if we didn't, I was anxious to see if we could gut out a win without our offense. It sounds funny to say when you score 86. But a lot of it is because they fouled us in the last three minutes of the game. Our defense carried us to a win and that's because of our toughness. We beat a good team without our 'A' offensive game and hopefully we can grow from that."
Adding a huge spark off the bench was junior guard, and the Special Olympics Player of the Game, Stephaun Adams. After missing the first five games of the year with an ankle injury, Adams provided 25 huge minutes at the point guard position for the Golden Eagles, leading the team in scoring in the first half with seven points.
He finished the game with a career-high 15 points, including an 8-for-10 showing at the line. He also added six rebounds to help Tech out-muscle Lipscomb on the glass, 38-34.
Senior Curtis Phillips Jr. posted a game-high 20 points while sinking 10 of his 13 tries from the charity stripe. Fellow senior Mason Ramsey dominated the paint despite being held to just 17 minutes of action due to foul trouble. The veteran post dropped 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting and a 3-for-3 effort at the free throw line.
Graduate guard Kajon Mack chipped in 12 points while connecting on six of his nine attempts at the line. Jugovic drilled all five of his freebies on his way to 10 points over just 23 minutes of play after also being limited with foul trouble. Junior Courtney Alexander II led Tech in rebounding for the eighth straight game, gathering eight boards with five points.
Garrison Mathews led the Bisons with 18 points while Kenny Cooper and Rob Marberry each added 16 and 15 points, respectively.
The Golden Eagles head back out on the road for another three-game stretch away from Cookeville, traveling to Furman on Saturday, Dec. 2 for a 4:00 p.m. tilt. Tech will then make trips to Dayton on Dec. 6 and to Central Michigan on Dec. 9 before returning home for an in-state meeting against Chattanooga on Dec. 17.
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information