By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
EVANSVILLE, Ind. – Tennessee Tech men's basketball's 2021-22 season officially came to a close Thursday evening, as the Golden Eagles (11-21) fell to No. 3 seeded Morehead State in the quarterfinals of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, 73-56.
The purple and gold weathered a storm right out of the gate, watching the rival Eagles (22-10) rain down a trio of triples and take an 11-0 lead in the first two minutes. The OVC's Defensive Player of the Year, Johni Broom, made his presence felt in the paint immediately, blocking Tech's first two attempts from the floor.
"We have a lot of respect for Morehead State," Tech head coach John Pelphrey said. "They're well-coached and have had two really terrific seasons here. Obviously, they have a special player up front. So we knew what the challenge was having played them a couple of times already."
As has been its nature all season, Tech dug deep and battled, slowly working its way back into the ball game and closing the gap to within three points on a Jr. Clay conversion from distance.
The trey made it a 29-26 ball game and forced Morehead State into a timeout with just under four minutes to play in the opening half. At the break, the Eagles led by just six, but a strong defensive effort over the final 20 minutes, as well as continued success from beyond the arc, let the Morehead squad pull away and put an end to a fabulous run that saw Tech win six of its final nine games.
"I thought our defensive game plan was really good," Pelphrey explained. "Just looking at the numbers here, we did a great job on Johni Broome; he had 15 points on 15 shots, so that worked. Their shooting percentage was where it needed it to be. They're just outstanding on defense. We struggled. You have to deal with him around the basket and their other players do a great job of getting in position. It's just hard to get them out of position and tonight we just didn't do a good job."
The Golden Eagles were actually more efficient from the field on the night, shooting 40 percent to Morehead's 39.1 percent, but it was the 11-for-30 showing from 3-point range and 12-for-15 performance at the charity stripe that propelled the Eagles into the semifinals.
"You have to give them all the credit," Pelphrey said. "It was not from a lack of effort from young men's part. I'm proud of them. Like I told them in the locker room, when we have a chance to reflect on this, I think we're going to see we've learned a lot. These guys always stay together. In one of the most challenging, not normal things they've ever done in basketball, they got better, without being able to practice very much. It was more mental than anything else, so the learning was off the chain. They made memories."
Leading the purple and gold on the night was returning freshman Kenny White Jr., hitting 6-of-10 tries for 14 points with four rebounds. Graduate guard John Pettway scored 11 points and blocked two shots in his final collegiate action. In their final games with the Tech squad, Shandon Goldman scored three points with four boards while Amadou Sylla produced two with five rebounds and two blocks.
Rounding out his illustrious, Golden Eagle career, Jr. Clay scored seven points and dished out four assists. The four-time All-OVC Second Team honoree ended his tenure as one of the all-time greats to don the purple and gold, finishing eighth in scoring (1,661 points), fourth in assists (451), tied for third in steals (202), and sixth in 3-point field goals made (202).
The Chattanooga native finished his career as the only player in school history to rank in the top-10 in all four categories. He also became just the second Golden Eagle ever to score 400 points in four different seasons in the Tech win over Austin Peay in the first round of the OVC Tournament.
"The one thing you can never question about any of them – you start thinking about Amadou [Sylla] and Jr. and how long they've been here – is their competitive nature," Pelphrey expressed. "They always show up and compete. We have just so much admiration, respect, thankfulness, and gratitude to those guys in particular for the amount of time they've put in since I've been here. And to all these guys.
"I think our culture is in a good place, but now we've got to move this thing to a championship culture. And it just takes time to do that. But these guys have elevated the program and we're just super, super thankful."
Photo by Thomas Corhern