By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
OXFORD, Miss. – For the first half, Tennessee Tech was giving Ole Miss fits. The Golden Eagles took multiple leads, including a six-point advantage with 4:09 remaining in the first set of 20 and held a lead for 11:36 of the contest.
If anything, it was a proof of concept that everything is moving in the right direction, giving a Southeastern Conference team a battle on their home court as Tech took a 32-31 lead into the locker room at the half.
The reality of the situation, however, is that the game still lasts 40 minutes. Ole Miss made adjustments, pulling away for an 80-63 victory on Saturday afternoon as the Rebels outscored the Golden Eagles 49-31.
"I think out basketball team is continuing to get better," said Tech men's head coach John Pelphrey. "We're hitting some strides. We're certainly not where we want to be and where we're going to be someday. Our body language, our attitude, our leadership and even our play now, you can see some positive things and some signs of growth. We're getting the ball to good spots on the floor – we have to finish these layups as we're missing a lot of point-blank shots. We have to concentrate more and work on getting our eyes on the target.
"We are getting better. These guys want it, so we're just going to continue creating a culture of accountability and coach and teach and lead. I believe they'll respond. All of these opportunities are really important. I mentioned it out there that there are a lot of places, games, film that are good experiences for getting better, but the competition is too. We need the competition. Regardless of what the time or score is, you need to be able to focus on doing your job and understand that it's important every time."
It's a long way from the spring through the summer and even the beginning days of the season. Through all of that time, they have learned the system and what is being asked of them. The growth process has stemmed from that.
"All these guys have had a lot of information thrown at them," Pelphrey said. "From the coaching change to new players being added, there's always fears and doubts, concerns, what's my limitations? The way you overcome that is focus. We stick to the code. Our code is really important to us and not something that's coach-speak. It's a mental method of operating and to learn what your job is and to do it with maximum effort and have great attitudes and body language. Whatever happens, you take care of your teammate and you take care of Tennessee Tech. You have to own the results.
"When you do that, the preparation puts you in the best situation to be able to trust yourself in the system and your teammates, to believe in yourself and the system. That hard work and effort, when you put that in and precedes trust and belief, then that's how it works. You can't trust and believe without the hard work."
Pelphrey continued, "Right now, we're kind of in the middle of this. We're growing and our trust is getting better. I think we're beginning to believe that we can improve and get better, but it takes time. It takes a lot of hard work. We're on a journey and we haven't reached our destination yet, but we're excited about where we are and the opportunity."
As Ohio Valley Conference play begins next week, the Golden Eagles have to feel that things are moving forward and are taking the right steps in building the program.
Jr. Clay and Darius Allen led Tech (3-10) in scoring with 13 points each, while Hunter Vick pulled down a team-high five boards. The Rebels (9-3) were led by a pair of 20-point scorers in K.J. Buffen and Devontae Shuler, while Blake Hinson came away with 10 caroms.
In the first half, Ole Miss outshot Tech by a slim margin – 41.4 to 39.3 percent – but the Golden Eagles were 3-of-9 from beyond the arc to Ole Miss' 1-for-12, and Tech was more efficient at the charity stripe, knocking down 7-of-8 to the Rebels' 6-for-11.
But while it was one of the best halves the Golden Eagles played so far this season, it still wasn't perfect.
"We played well, but we weren't great," Pelphrey said. "We missed several opportunities around the basket. We ended up fouling and getting them into the bonus with 12 minutes to go. That's all on us. For as good of a first half as we played – and there was some really good things with the speed, the pace, getting the ball to really good spots – unfortunately, the guys have to learn that it's a 40-minute game."
That was evident as the second half belonged to the Rebels. Tech shot better and made fewer turnovers, but Ole Miss didn't miss often, shooting 69.2 percent from the floor, then outrebounded the Golden Eagles 18-12.
Ten personal fouls to Ole Miss' four also put the Rebels at the line more often as the Golden Eagles knocked down one of their second-half free throws, while Ole Miss was 7-of-10. The Rebels were also able to get more 3-pointers to fall hitting six of their 11 tries.
"There's a lot of leadership and pride in the other locker room and they're going to come out," Pelphrey said. "They're going to come at you. In the second half, our defense really slipped, they got really physical with us, and that's where the weight room and recruiting is really important to this program. We have to develop the players that are in it, we have to continue to recruit and get bigger and stronger.
"But all of those things – creating a culture of accountability, developing players, recruiting – that doesn't all happen at once. Right now, we're creating a culture -- that takes time. We're developing players – that takes time. Obviously recruiting will be the last piece. We just have to keep coming to work every day and we get a lot of energy from these guys."
With the progress made, the Golden Eagles can take that and continue to build. That doesn't mean a good result means a chance to back down as the struggle continues to grow as the season wears on.
"You have to take something from every game, win or lose," Pelphrey said. "You take that and you learn, you get better. We have to be on a savage seek mission every time to learn everything from it because your next opponent will get this and whatever you did get in this game, it will be harder in the next because they have the information and that's where the battle comes in. Mentally, you have to really understand that.
"Human nature is 'aw, we played good against an SEC school and Coach said some nice things.' That means you're relaxed. You forget about how we came off of Christmas break and how hard we worked on the 26th with practices and weights, how hard we worked on the 27th and an early practice on the 28th before we travelled. You can't forget about how much work went in just for tonight. You have to start back over. That's the constant circle of life for all of us, but especially for a basketball player."
Tech returns to action on Thursday as it opens OVC play at Eastern Kentucky as part of a women's/men's doubleheader. The men will take to the court in the second game, approximately at 6:30 p.m. Central.
Photo | Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information