“Experience” is one of those qualities that’s often stated for a team having an advantage on the court, but there’s isn’t a way to test it’s impact. You simply either “know” it helped or hindered a team’s performance, or you don’t.
Tonight, it almost certainly played a part.
Tennessee Tech senior Jeremiah Samarrippas scored a team-high sixteen points, adding in eleven assists, as the fifth seeded Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles beat eight seed SIU Edwardsville in the Cougars first ever OVC tournament appearance.
On the game’s opening possession, Kris Davis hit a three from the wing, but from there the SIUE offense went stale. Tennessee Tech immediately went on an 8-0 run, jumping out to a lead they would never relinquish.
“I would say nerves” SIUE head coach Lennox Forrester said of his team’s first half struggles, “and a little Tennessee Tech. They were very aggressive defensively. They made it very tough to execute our plays.”
“Tennessee Tech came out with such great energy, and I think that was a part of it,” Forrester added.
For Tennessee Tech, it wasn’t the hot start but the struggles at the end of the game that was first and foremost on head coach Steve Payne’s mind. After leading by as much as sixteen, the Golden Eagles saw SIUE slowly cut into the lead during the second half. The lead remained double-digits with 3:25 left, before a six nothing Cougars run fueled by turnovers brought SIUE within four.
“We’ve had a chance to feel like we played well at times,” Payne said, “and I thought we played well tonight except for a few minutes where we turned the ball over too much in the second half with questionable decisions. I thought that our defense, once we weren’t fouling, we got on our heels a little bit and let them attack the paint.”
SIUE’s rally, in many ways, was halted again by their own inexperience. After hitting 15 of their first 17 from the charity stripe, SIUE finished just 3-10 from the free-throw line. After the Cougars pulled within four, it was TTU’s senior who once again ended the threat; Samarrippas hit a three from the corner with 1:31 left, ending any serious threat from SIUE down the stretch.
“We’ve been in that situation so many times this year,” Samarrippas said. We gave up so many leads so we just settled down. I hit a three — which was pretty big for us. I turned the ball over so many times. But Payne gives me a lot of freedom and like I said we’ve been in that situation a lot of times so we were real comfortable.”
“He owed us that three,” Payne joked, referring to some late turnovers by the senior.
The Golden Eagles, who advance to play Morehead State in tomorrow’s OVC Tournament quarterfinals, have a unique view on being the five seed, and needing four wins to be crowned champions.
“I told them we get to play four games,” Payne said. “Other teams only get to play two.”
The Golden Eagles split the series with Morehead State this year, with both meeting coming within the past three weeks. “It’s good we didn’t have to spend the prep time,” Payne said of playing the Eagles so often over a short period of time. We’ve had really one game — the last game is all we really cut on our video. It’s bad because they’re pretty stinking good.”
For the Cougars, a season ends with a first round loss, but it also end with their first ever trip to Nashville as a program, something Forrester thinks they can build on. “It’s kind of going to be one of those things where you have to compete against 12 other teams,” Forrester said, “but just a taste alone is going to keep out guys hungry and hopefully keep our program moving in the right direction.”