By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
CULLOWHEE, N.C. – It was near déjà vu for the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team Wednesday evening in Cullowhee, N.C. as the Golden Eagles dropped a heartbreaking, overtime decision to Western Carolina, 74-69, almost a year to the day of last season's overtime loss to the Catamounts in the Ramsey Center.
"I thought we got better tonight," Tech head coach John Pelphrey said. "I really did. The guys made a conscious effort to stay together, to huddle up, to think about and talk about the things that were necessary coming down the stretch. They put themselves in a position to win and I'm really proud of them."
Both sides struggled to get much going offensively in the first half of the contest, slugging it out to the tune of a 25-23 score at the break in favor of the home squad. Neither team shot better than 28 percent in the opening 20 minutes.
Each team took its turn building a healthy advantage on the night, with the Catamounts boasting their largest lead of nine points in the first half. Tech fought back and in the second half, on the heels of 44 percent shooting, jumped out to as much as an eight-point lead.
Western Carolina fought back, using a solid showing beyond the charity stripe to stay in the game, despite an inferior improvement in shooting from the floor than the Golden Eagles. The Cookeville crew looked to be in good shape down the stretch, leading by five with just over 30 seconds to play.
After WCU cut the lead to three on the layup, Tech missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw that gave possession back to the home team with just over 20 seconds on the clock. The Catamounts raced down the court and hit a triple, tying the game with 18 seconds to play.
Tech got two looks at the basket in the closing seconds, but neither shot found pay dirt and the contest went to overtime. Hitting free throws down the stretch, Western Carolina held on late to beat Tech in the extra, five-minute period.
"We just have to keep working and keep battling," Pelphrey explained. "We're just not there yet. We're going to get there. You have to give Western Carolina credit. They made some big shots down the stretch and we had a couple of tough breaks. We had a couple of free-throw opportunities we could have cashed in, but it goes both ways."
Junior guard Jr. Clay led the Golden Eagles in scoring for the second game in a row, posting 15 points with a team and season-high eight rebounds. Kenny White Jr. produced his top game of the season, chipping in a career-high 14 points on 50 percent shooting, as well as seven boards.
Also in double figures for the Tech squad was Keishawn Davidson with 10 on 50 percent shooting from the floor and beyond the arc and Daniel Ramsey with 10 on 5-for-9 efficiency from the field and five boards.
"I'm proud of the way the guys competed," Pelphrey expressed. "I'm proud of how they hung in there. I was proud of the fight…when you do that, it feels good. It's also painful because when everyone is pulling in the same direction and you don't get the results you want, that's tough. We have to understand where we are right now, what's needed, and how we make those steps. I let them know that there's no need to hang their head. There are some things we can be better at and there are some things we'll learn, but overall, I'm proud of our effort."
The Golden Eagles return to the Hooper Eblen Center for a Saturday matinee with Troy on Dec. 11. Tip is set for 1:00 p.m. CT and marks the first of two straight games at home for Tech.
Season tickets for Tennessee Tech basketball are on sale now. Call (931) 372-3940, visit the Hooper Eblen Center ticket office, or log on to TTUSports.com to order yours today.
Photo by Thomas Corhern