By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Sometimes, it's just a game of inches. That was the case in the Curb Event Center Thursday evening, as a last-second, 26-foot heave from sophomore Jr. Clay came up just short, allowing the Belmont Bruins to outlast the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team, 65-62.
The Golden Eagles (9-21, 6-11) turned in one of its better defensive showing of the season, holding the hometown Bruins to just 65 points, well off their season average of 81.2 per game. That effort was particularly evident in the second half, as Belmont managed just 27 points on 37.9 percent shooting and a 1-for-9 showing from beyond the arc.
"I thought the guys really battled and competed better than anything else," Tech head coach John Pelphrey said. "Our defense was better than it has been. Certainly, it wasn't our best effort from an offensive standpoint, but we came over here and were tough enough, physical enough and made enough plays to hold them to 65 points, which gave us a chance. They came in averaging over 80 points a game, so we're proud of that."
Trailing by as much as 12 points in the second half, the Golden Eagles displayed the same tenacity and grit that led the team to four wins in their previous five games entering the night. Over a four-minute stretch, Tech had the deficit down to just four points following four-straight triples from freshman Keishawn Davidson, sophomore Jr. Clay and senior Cade Crosland.
With just six minutes play, Tech had closed the gap to a single point, led by another Davidson trey and a nice sequence involving Clay. After being called for a tough foul, Clay answered by picking off and finishing the play off with a layup to cut the score to 55-54 in favor of the Bruins.
Sophomore Amadou Sylla played a critical role down the stretch, hitting a pair of free throws with Tech trailing by six with under four minutes on the clock. On the next possession, the forward connected on a huge bucket while drawing a foul, trimming it to a two-point game. After missing the ensuing freebie, he made up for it with a big block on the opposite end of the court.
Belmont's Nick Muszynski, who led all scorers on the night with 23 points, scored 14 of them in the second half, including a hook shot with 2:27 to play to put the Bruins back up by four. Another Clay layin with 90 seconds to go cut it back to a two-point contest.
The Bruins scored the final point of the contest on a free throw with just over a minute to play, but missed the second one, giving Tech some hope. While Belmont collected the offensive rebound off the miss, the Golden Eagles held strong on defense on back-to-back possessions, earning one last try at sending the game to overtime.
"We just have to look at this film and learn from it from an offensive perspective," Pelphrey explained. "There were some really great plays made, but I thought coming down the stretch we just panicked a little bit and took some really tough shots we didn't need to. We just need to trust the system, trust each other a little bit more, keep moving the basketball and let it find people. We haven't been in that situation a whole lot, so we'll have a chance to learn from this.
"I thought from the last time we played them, we got better," he added. "So I'm proud of that."
Davidson led the Golden Eagles offensively, scoring 17 points on 6-for-10 shooting with a trio of makes from beyond the arc. He also dished out three assists and corralled five rebounds with a pair of steals. Sylla chipped in 10 points, five boards and three blocks off the bench.
Clay recorded double figures for the 23rd consecutive game, tying for the fifth-most such performances by a Golden Eagle in a single season the 1984-85 campaign. The point guard accounted for 12 points, all of which came in the second half. He also tallied three dimes, four boards and three steals. Crosland just missed double digits, sinking 3-of-7 attempts from downtown for nine points.
"At the end of the day, we have another game to play," Pelphrey said. "The next game on our schedule is the biggest game of the year. It looks like the winner of that game could earn a berth into the conference tournament, so this is playoff basketball right now."
The Golden Eagles will wrap up the regular season Saturday evening, traveling south for a 7:00 p.m. CT match-up at Jacksonville State. With a victory against the Gamecocks, Tech can clinch a spot in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament in Evansville, Ind. next week.
"At the end of the day, it's going to come down to our ability to focus and do our job," Pelphrey explained. "That's what's important. Fatigue, bad calls, you not playing very well, a teammate not playing very well, a chance to play another game as a reward for winning this one; those are all distractions. So we just have to focus and do our job and will have to live the result.
"I know our guys will be excited to play and they've responded all season long," he expressed. "I think we're constantly getting better and this will present another challenge for us. We had a hard-fought battle with them at home, so I'm sure they'll want to play well against us too. They're playing for the same opportunity we are."
Photo by Thomas Corhern