By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – A hard-fought battle from beginning to end went in favor of the home team Tuesday evening, as the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team fell to in-state rival Chattanooga at McKenzie Arena, 69-62.
A defensive war from the opening tip, both sides traded blows over the opening stanza, with the Golden Eagles riding a relatively hot start to open as large as a six-point advantage halfway through the first 20 minutes of action. The Moc defense tightened its hold to close out the period, limiting the purple and gold to 43.3 percent shooting for the half.
Tech's defense kept the team in the game early, providing a 32-21 lead at the break while holding the Southern Conference preseason favorites to just 35.5 percent shooting. In the second half, the script was flipped, as the Golden Eagles struggled to find their rhythm to the tune of a 37.5 percent effort from the floor.
On the flip side, Chattanooga connected on 50 percent of its tries from the floor, putting four players in double figures for the contest and taking as large as an 11-point lead with four minutes to go.
"I thought we really competed, especially on the defensive end," Tech head coach John Pelphrey said of his team's effort. "We were better in the first half than the second half offensively, but we still weren't great. We only shot 40 percent from the field. We knew it could possibly be a tough night coming in offensively. Chattanooga is a very good defensive team.
"But we came out on the road and were able to establish ourselves early. That's good. That's progress. We just didn't play well enough offensively or defensively in the second half or convert on enough opportunities towards the end. I know it was a couple of possessions game, but they were able to kind of keep us at arm's length there down the stretch."
Playing in front of a generous cheering section of his own, Chattanooga native Jr. Clay scored six quick points for the purple and gold following the final media break, cutting the deficit to just six with a little under three minutes to play. The two sides traded buckets, with key free throws giving the Mocs the edge.
Returning sophomore guard Keishawn Davidson buried his fourth triple of the game on as many attempts with 21 seconds to go in the ball game, bringing the Golden Eagles as close as they'd get down the stretch at 67-62. Two more late free throws by UTC provided the final score.
"We gave enough effort, played hard, and competed," Pelphrey expressed. "We were resilient and didn't back down. We showed we are capable of making some plays both offensively and defensively. Now we just have to become more consistent with those techniques and those fundamentals to try and get a win on the road like that."
Clay paced the Tech effort with a season-high 15 points and dished out four assists as well. He also hit a 3-pointer for the 40th-consecutive game in his career, the second-longest streak in program history. Davidson was right behind with 14 points and four helpers of his own. He also corralled seven rebounds while sinking all four of his attempts from downtown.
Junior big man Amadou Sylla made all five of his attempts from the floor on the night on his way to 10 points, playing scrappy defense all game. Kenny White Jr. produced eight points while Diante Wood chipped in seven with five rebounds, three assists, and three steals. Mamoudou Diarra rejected a career-high three shots in the contest while hauling in a team-high eight rebounds.
"I think we're in a different place than before, but there's still a lot of hard work to do," Pelphrey added. "It's a very challenging schedule and we need everyone just to stay locked in and focus on getting better."
The Golden Eagles will return to Chattanooga on Thursday evening, rounding up the Coke Zero Sugar Classic with a neutral-site meeting against UNC Asheville at 5:00 p.m. CT.
File photo by Joe Murphy