By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Following a whopping 23 days between ball games, the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team finally took the court to begin its Ohio Valley Conference schedule Thursday evening, falling at in-state rival Belmont by a final score of 92-77.
After losing each of their first five, regularly-scheduled contests in league play due to COVID-19 protocols both within the Tech program and some of their opponents, the Golden Eagles were able to make a last-minute trip to Nashville to square off with the Bruins. Belmont saw its own contest against Austin Peay, originally slated for Thursday, postponed due to protocols within the Govs squad.
The purple and gold pounced on the opportunity to get back on the hardwood in a competitive environment, having last suited up back on Dec. 21, 2021 in the team's final non-conference affair at Cincinnati.
"We're so excited about our opportunity here in Cookeville," Tech head coach John Pelphrey expressed. "I really appreciate Dr. [Phil] Oldham and Mark Wilson for the opportunity and I knew when I took over it was going to be a great challenge. And I've been through those before. At Arkansas, we lost our whole team, so we had a start-up team there. At South Alabama, we were down scholarships and on probation. This was tough, especially in this climate of COVID. And this year is worse than last year because it's spiking right now."
After slogging through what was ranked as the nation's 67th toughest strength of schedule heading into Thursday's tilt, the Golden Eagles saw signs of breaking through when the brief break for the Christmas holidays approached. No one was prepared for what followed.
"We had a great non-conference schedule where we didn't win as many games as we would've liked, but we had a lot of confidence coming out of Christmas," Pelphrey explained. "And then boom. We got hit. That's tough. So I'm really proud of what the guys did tonight. You just never know as a coach. But this was a must-play for us tonight. We had to play this game."
The Golden Eagles looked understandably rusty to kick off the action with Belmont, shooting just 37.5 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from distance in the first half. The Bruins took advantage, hitting 57.1 percent from the floor behind an 8-for-15 effort from downtown for a 50-28 lead heading into the locker rooms.
Tech fought back in the second half, opening the stanza on an 11-4 run and closing the gap to as close as 12 down the stretch before another late Bruin run put things away for good. The Golden Eagles appeared much more comfortable over the final 20 minutes of action, hitting 58.8 percent from the floor and 41.7 percent from beyond the arc while out-scoring Belmont 49-42.
"Obviously in the first half it looked like we hadn't been out there in a while and they looked good," Pelphrey said. "And they are good. I love how they play and what they do. I thought at moments in time we kind of looked like them, so I'm excited about that. Our consistency isn't where it needs to be yet. The second half was better, but our focus tonight was to come down here and try to get everyone in the game and get back in game shape. We're hoping this will give us a little bit of footing with one day of travel and try to do this again at Martin on Saturday."
Leading the Golden Eagle effort offensively was transfer forward Daniel Ramsey, who painted the basket to the tune of a career-high 18 points on 9-for-15 shooting. He added three boards as well. Kenny White Jr., making his second start of the season and in as many games, dropped 14 points with a trio of triples to his name. The returning freshman also rejected three shots while corralling five boards.
Mamoudou Diarra collected a pair of steals while contributing 12 points while John Pettway joined the double-digit effort with 10 points off the bench. Keishawn Davidson led the purple and gold with six rebounds and three assists.
"It's a blessing to be able to play," Pelphrey expressed. "We're not guaranteed tomorrow. We just have to stay in the moment, be appreciative of what we have and be tough and resilient. There's going to come a time where our quality of play is sustained and we're going to push through and finish some of these things. All I can say is we're just not there yet."
Tech will play its second of three road games in five days to kick off OVC play on Saturday, making the trip west for an in-state battle with UT Martin. Tip is slated for 3:30 p.m. CT at the Elam Center. The Golden Eagles will then make up its first postponed contest of the league schedule with a trip back to Nashville on Monday for a 1:00 p.m. matinee with Tennessee State.
File photo by Thomas Corhern