By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – What seemed destined to be a low-scoring, back-and-forth battle quickly changed to a different illusion rather quickly for the Tennessee Tech men's basketball Thursday evening. The close battle flipped to a comfortable lead for the visitors from Belmont, but changed again into a thrilling, comeback bid for the Golden Eagles.
In the end, Belmont (15-7, 6-3) held off a furious rally down the stretch by Tech (5-17, 2-7) to earn a 92-84 victory in the Hooper Eblen Center.
The Bruins used a 20-5 run over the final six minutes of the first half to take a healthy, and seemingly safe lead into the break.
"I thought the first seven minutes couldn't have gone better for us," Tech head coach John Pelphrey said. "We were getting some stops, they were missing a few plays inside and then we were able to get out and score. But we really got deflated. I think we missed four straight layups, and maybe a couple of open threes as well, and the air kind of came out of the building for us in terms of our confidence and poise. I thought our attitude and body language really slipped.
"That's kind of the way the rest of the half went. We didn't have good offense. When you lack energy and effort, it's going to show up in transition defense."
Tech refused to call it quits, however, turning the second half into a free-for-all, barn-burning race to the finish. With 10 minutes to play, and the Bruins still holding a rather decisive looking 19-point advantage, the Golden Eagles began to creep their way back into contention.
"We tried to regroup at halftime and I thought, coming out of the locker room, we did play much better basketball offensively," Pelphrey said. "The ball moved. It didn't get stuck. We shared it. Even the shots that didn't go in were great looks. I think we scored 11 points in the first three-and-a-half or four minutes, which is almost half of what we had in the first half."
The two teams traded some buckets, but the purple and gold needed just two minutes to trim the deficit to 13. Following another four-minute stretch, Tech made it a 10-point contest after hitting back-to-back triples.
Belmont extended it back to 14 with just under 90 second to play, but the Golden Eagles had one more run left in them. Sophomore Hunter Vick, returning to the mix after missing the past six contests due to injury, hit a jumper just outside the paint and followed it up with a triple after a pair of missed free throws by the Bruins.
Following a missed shot attempt, Tech raced down the court and found fellow sophomore Jr. Clay open for another trey, shaving the deficit down to just six points. The Golden Eagles simply ran out of time as Belmont hit a pair of free throws with four seconds to go to end the night.
The Golden Eagles were unconscious on the offensive end in the second half, shooting 63.3 percent (19-of-30) from the floor, 69.2 percent (9-of-13) from 3-point range and 78.9 percent (15-of-19) from the charity stripe. The purple and gold outscored the Bruins, 59-46, in the second period. Tech won the rebound battle, 38-32, and dished out 21 assists on the night as well.
Vick, the Special Olympics Player of the Game, erupted for a season-high 21 points off the bench, sinking all five of his attempts from beyond the arc and hitting each of his four tries at the charity stripe. Senior Darius Allen tied his own career-high with 18 points, connecting on four of his seven shots from 3-point range. He also hauled in a team-high eight rebounds.
Clay turned in a solid night, particularly in the second half, scoring 16 of his 19 points over the final 20 minutes. The Chattanooga native dished out a team-high eight assists and corralled five boards. Freshman Keishawn Davidson added eight points and seven assists.
"I feel that our group of guys right now have tremendous room for growth and I just believe that," Pelphrey expressed. "Me believing it, the coaching staff believing it, a few of the guys believing it is not getting it done. It's going to take total buy-in. That's the exciting for us though. We are capable of getting better."
The Golden Eagles will return to action Saturday, Feb. 1 with a 7:30 p.m. CT tilt against in-state rival Tennessee State.
Photo by Thomas Corhern