By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – The Tennessee Tech men's basketball team officially kicked off the John Pelphrey era Tuesday evening, squaring off with former, long-time, Ohio Valley Conference foe Western Kentucky for the first time in over 15 years.
The Hilltoppers (1-0), who were selected to win Conference USA in the preseason coaches poll, defeated the Golden Eagles at E.A. Diddle Arena, 76-64, but the Golden Eagles refused to go down without a fight, making a run at the contest late in the second half.
Trailing by as many as 21 with just over 16 minutes to play, the purple and gold clawed its way to within 11 with 10 minutes on the clock. Western Kentucky jumped back out to a 17-point lead with just under seven minutes left in the contest, but Tech went on a 14-to-6 run over the next four-and-a-half minutes to trim the deficit to just nine.
The Golden Eagles had a couple of late looks from beyond the arc, but time just eventually ran out on the visitors from Cookeville.
"I'm very proud of how our guys played and competed," Pelphrey said. "There was a lot of heart tonight. We talked about that for several days, about coming up here and playing this caliber team. About how talented they are, the experience they have, being the home opener, being in a hostile environment, all those things. So it was going to be hard and we didn't expect anything but that. And it was."
It was a slow start offensively for Tech, as the youthful bunch wrapped up the first half of the contest shooting just 33.3 percent from the field and 14.3 percent from 3-point range. At the break, the Hilltoppers led 36-23. Things began to click over the final 20 minutes, however, as Tech closed the game shooting 54.8 percent from the floor and 50 percent from deep.
Both defenses were in full force throughout the contest, with Tech making 19 turnovers and Western Kentucky committing 16. Each team racked up eight steals on the night as well. The rebound battle wen to the home squad, albeit by just a couple of boards, 32-30. The Golden Eagles actually outscored WKU in the second half, 41-40.
"I felt like they did some things, but I feel like most of it was self-inflicted on our behalf," Pelphrey expressed. "We just have to learn. I love the fight. I love some of the really good plays we had after we kind of settled in. But as a basketball team, the biggest thing for us is to go back and watch this film and start believing in ourselves, that when I do it right once on transition defense. When I block out correctly once. When we have great pick-and-roll execution. All those things you saw as a positive, now can I do them seven, eight, nine times-out-of-ten as opposed to three or four. That's when we'll have a chance to make some progress.
"I think our guys are starting to understand that a little bit. That's why the game was so important for us. You really can't simulate this stuff in practice. Some of the mistakes you make in practice don't really get illuminated like they did tonight. We'll have a chance to learn. I like this basketball team. They kept battling, they kept competing. I though their attitude and effort was there the whole night. Sometimes you don't get the results you want on the court, but you can still be winning. More than anything else this year, we've got to fight for the culture. I think that these guys are all about that. We're proud of them from that standpoint."
True freshman point guard Keishawn Davidson, who starred for Tech in their exhibition contest against Bryan College, again led his team on the offensive end of the floor, accounting for a team-high 18 points and six assists. The rookie made zero turnovers while playing a team-high 33 minutes.
Sophomore forward Amadou Sylla sank six of his seven shots in his debut, totaling 13 points and four boards. Fellow sophomore Hunter Vick also accounted for double digits on the scoreboard, contributing 11 points and five rebounds. Darius Allen led Tech with six boards.
"Like I said before, we're proud of all the guys," Pelphrey said. "Each of them will have something to learn from in this film. That's what they've got to do. They need to take this game and we have to learn from it and go get better in practice and get ready for that next basketball game."
That next basketball game will see the Golden Eagles return to Cookeville for the home-opener, a tilt with Martin Methodist on Saturday, Nov. 9. Tip is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. CT and will follow the Tech football team's Homecoming game against Jacksonville State, which will kick off at 1:30 p.m. at Tucker Stadium.
Season tickets for Tennessee Tech basketball are on sale now. Call (931) 372-3940, visit the Hooper Eblen Center ticket office, or log on to TTUSports.com to order yours today.
Photo by Jonathan Caudle