By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – A good, old-fashioned slobber knocker seems the most apt description for Thursday night's Ohio Valley Conference tilt between the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team and SIUE, a contest that saw the Golden Eagles rally back on the road for a huge, 72-69 victory at the Vadalabene Center in Edwardsville, Ill.
The contest featured 10 leads changes and 11 ties, as well as double-digit leads on both sides of the scoreboard. In the end, however, it was Tech (4-14, 1-4) that stood on top, using a fantastic final 20 minutes to collect the first OVC win of the John Pelphrey era.
"I'm just very proud of our guys to be able to hang in there and battle," the Tech head coach said. "We came out and had a good start there and I mentioned to the other coaches, 'we're in an old-fashioned shootout here. We might get 80 points tonight.' I think I might have jinxed us there a little bit, because we stayed on 25 for a long period of time."
The shootout looked real early in the game, with neither side able to pull more than four points ahead through the first 16 minutes. The Cougars (4-14, 1-4) finally broke that streak, using a scoreless stretch of nearly seven minutes by the Golden Eagles to build a nine-point advantage at the break.
SIUE made its first basket of the second half to take its largest lead of the game of 11 points. From that point on, Tech seemed to seize control. Over the next four minutes, the purple and gold fought and clawed all the way back to tie things up with just under 16 on the clock.
The defense held true down the stretch, allowing the young Tech squad to build a lead all the way out to 10 points following an old-school, three-point play from junior Larry Kuimi. With under eight minutes to play, the Golden Eagles held a 60-50 edge.
"We hung in there and battled," Pelphrey explained. "We had a good discussion at halftime, came back out and started making some good plays. I thought Dane Quest really got his defense into the game. I thought Reece Wilkinson had some moments. Larry Kuimi was unbelievable there for a two or three-minute stretch in terms of helping us score the basketball. So it kind of came from a lot of places."
The Cougars quickly answered the Tech run, scoring eight straight points to pull within two. Senior guard Darius Allen, playing with four fouls at that point in the contest, made one of the most important shots of the night, hitting a clutch 3-pointer from the corner to snap the SIUE streak and provide some much needed momentum the other way.
Despite the shot, the Cougars eventually found a way to knot things up at 69-69 with just over a minute to play. Tech freshman Tujautae Williams came up with the dagger for the Golden Eagles, however, nailing a floater in the lane with 52 seconds on the clock. The bucket gave Tech the lead for good, allowing the team to lean on its defense to hold on for the victory.
"It was good for us to finally be in a battle down the stretch to see how we can make some decisions," Pelphrey expressed. "We made some big plays. I wouldn't say it was out of execution so much. We also made some plays that we have to pull from. What happened tonight was exactly what I knew was going to happen. Now I have video evidence to take to the team. We're running really good offense. We're getting the ball to the spot and the wrong guy is shooting the ball. We need to get on two feet and pass it to the wide open man. Tonight we were able to learn that lesson so the next time it happens, we'll be better for it."
The Golden Eagles dominated the glass on the night, 42-31, including a strong showing on the offensive boards with a 14-7 advantage. Leading that charge was none other than Allen, who narrowly missed a double-double after hauling in nine rebounds and scoring a team-high 15 points. The veteran also blocked a career-high three shots.
Sophomore forward Amadou Sylla had a resurgent night on offense, scoring eight quick points in the first half and finishing with 13 in the contest. He added six boards to the effort as well. Point guard Jr. Clay continued his hot stretch, notching his 11th consecutive double-digit scoring performance with 14 points. He chipped in four rebounds and four assists for good measure. Williams contributed seven rebounds while Wilkinson and Kuimi each added seven points to the mix.
"Truthfully, you could see some signs of the culture being established with these young players," Pelphrey said. "They are resilient. They have to continue to learn the game of basketball, but I love too, the fact they cheer for each other. This means the world to them, to be able to get a win like this, on the road. I'm very, very proud of our team."
Senior Cade Crosland came up with eight huge points, as well as two timely steals and three assists while posting easily the best plus/minus of the night with a +21. No other player posted higher than a +6 in the contest.
"It's great to get the young guys out there," Pelphrey expressed. "It's invaluable for them. I think the guy that really settles everything for us though, is Cade. He's out there and he's constantly communicating, constantly talking and just does an amazing bunch of things for us. I know in the second half, he came up with a couple of steals and loose balls that ended up leading to run-out layups.
"I think a lot guys in our program are getting better, but I'm not too sure anyone has made more progress than that kid. He is getting better and better and he's doing it while moving past the pain with all of his injuries. He's just putting everything into it and I'm really proud of him. I think there are some other guys that are doing the same thing as well. That's their DNA and that's us, hopefully, establishing the type of culture that we want to have."
Tech will return to the hardwood Saturday afternoon, wrapping up its Illinois road trip with a visit to Charleston and a match-up with Eastern Illinois. Tip is set for 3:15 p.m. CT and will follow the Golden Eagle women's contest against the Panthers, which will begin at 1:00 p.m.
Photo by Thomas Corhern