By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
MOREHEAD, Ky. – A valiant, second-half effort was not enough to overcome a lights-out, shooting performance from downtown by the home team as the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team fell at Morehead State Saturday afternoon, 83-72.
Wrapping up its Ohio Valley Conference opening weekend, Tech (3-12, 0-2) struggled early to get the offense rolling while Morehead State (7-8, 1-1) used a dominant showing from the field and beyond the arc to build a large halftime lead of 49-27. In the opening stanza, the hometown Eagles fired at a 53 percent clip from the floor and drilled 7-of-12 tries from 3-point range, all while holding Tech to just 30 and 20 percent from the same areas, respectively.
"In the first half, we were not able to score the basketball despite some good opportunities around the basket," Tech head coach John Pelphrey said. "We need to continue to grow and get better at reading the defense once we get the ball in the lane. When you have this small lineup that we were using, it creates more opportunities to drive the ball and kick it out for 3-point shots.
"When that wasn't working, in terms of us actually scoring, I thought we were very, very soft defensively. I didn't think we had any physical toughness or resolve. Quite honestly, it was the only time all year I was disappointed in our basketball team. I didn't think we were very competitive and we didn't have a warrior-like mentality at all."
There was no questioning the Golden Eagle mentality coming out of the locker room following the break, as the purple and gold quickly threw together an 11-0 run over nearly four minutes to shave down the deficit to just eight points. Morehead State called for timeout, seemingly resetting its own strategy that resulted in its own 6-0 run.
While eight was as close as the Tech squad would make the contest, that second-half effort was evident, as Tech out-shot, out-rebounded and played better overall basketball for the majority of the final 20 minutes. In that second half alone, the Golden Eagles out-paced Morehead 45-34 with six blocks, four steals and 19 rebounds. The team also only turned the ball over twice while dishing out eight assists and shooting 50 percent from the floor.
"We had to change and do something," Pelphrey explained of the difference between the two halves. "We've messed around at times playing a bigger lineup. It does hurt with spacing and ball handling, and we're not particularly skilled around the basket. But I'll tell you one thing it did do; Amadou [Sylla], Larry [Kuimi] and Reece [Wilkinson] were incredibly physical without fouling. They did a great job competing for rebounds and blocking shots. Their effort really got us back in the game, and, oddly enough, with that lineup on the floor, we started scoring as well.
"We'll have to go back and take a look at it and learn from it, but I was really proud of the team for coming back out and competing way better. We'll have to see if we actually played any better, but we competed the way we want to compete in this program in the second half. The first half is not what we want to see."
Sylla led the rebounding efforts on the night for Tech, hauling eight while also rejecting a team-high three shots and scoring seven points. Kuimi added two blocks and six points while Wilkinson dished out three assists and snagged a pair of rebounds in limited action.
Sophomore point guard Jr. Clay led the offensive attack, scoring a team-high 17 points with a trio of triples. Fellow point guard Keishawn Davidson also drilled three treys, posting 15 points. Sophomore Jared Sherfield rounded out the Golden Eagles in double figures, chipping in 13 points off the bench.
The loss to the Eagles dropped Tech to 0-2 in the league, but Pelphrey was quick to see there were several things to learn from following his first taste of the Ohio Valley Conference, particularly on the road.
"With conference play, it's a second season," he said. "And when you come into conference play, especially on the road, everyone is going to be hungry at home and pick up a win in their own gym. We ran into a very aggressive, a very intense Eastern Kentucky team on Thursday. Then you come to Morehead and they dropped their home opener. So you have to know they're really going to try to rally the troops and come out with great intensity and effort. You have to match that.
"More than anything else, I believe mindset matters. And if you're going to have a repetitive, dominant, competitive program, it has to start with mindset. Talent level will come and go. It will be up and down. But in terms of competing, that's all mindset. That's in between your ears and inside your heart. We've got to learn those things in order to make a jump here. That's part of the goal with this season, is to establish that culture of accountability and developing players."
The Golden Eagles will return to Cookeville and the Hooper Eblen Center for its conference opener Thursday, Jan. 9, playing host to in-state rival Austin Peay in a 6:00 p.m. CT tilt. The men's contest will follow the Tech women's team's match-up with the Governors, which will be televised nationally on ESPNU at 4:00 p.m.
Photo by Thomas Corhern