Southeast Missouri State men's basketball weathers late push, hands Tennessee Tech first OVC loss
The Southeast Missouri State men's basketball team could feel the pressure after watching its 20-point lead dwindle to a single possession on Tuesday night.
The gap disappeared in a matter of minutes, as Kajon Mack's 3-pointer from the right corner trimmed Tennessee Tech's deficit to 75-73 with 1 minutes, 54 seconds remaining in the game.
Redhawks coach Rick Ray learned a lot about which players could handle that pressure in the closing moments, as Southeast weathered the Golden Eagles' late push and held on for an 83-78 victory at the Show Me Center.
"There's a lot of things to learn from that game, but more importantly, it's really good to get some learning lessons from a win," Ray said. "I thought it was like a Chinese fire drill for most of the game. It was that way in the first half because we had so many guys in foul trouble, and then in the second half, it seemed like a Chinese fire drill because we were just trying to find somebody who could keep their head and not turn the ball over and not get sped up.
"I just thought we kind of lost our minds a little bit and played out of composure."
The Redhawks (7-12, 2-2 Ohio Valley Conference) scored the opening bucket and never trailed against the Golden Eagles (7-12, 3-1), who entered the game as one of two teams in the conference unbeaten in league play.
In a game that ended too close for comfort, Southeast senior Antonius Cleveland's performance was a bit overshadowed. The 6-foot-6 guard finished with a game-high 24 points and seven rebounds and was a perfect 9-of-9 from the field. His only miss came at the free-throw line, where he finished 6 of 7.
"I was just hitting shots, and my teammates were wanting me to keep going," Cleveland said. "Once I see a couple go in, especially a couple that I don't think are going in, I just know I'm hard to guard for anybody.
"I think my teammates did a good job of just telling me to stay aggressive because I know sometimes I go in spurts of not being aggressive at all."
Daniel Simmons hit a pair of free throws to push SEMO's lead to 77-73 with 1:38 to play before Mack hit the second of two free throws to pull TTU back within three points.
Simmons was unable to connect on a trey from the top of the key on the Redhawks' next trip down the floor, but Jaylen Benton corralled the offensive board to maintain possession.
Cleveland knocked down a pair of free throws to push the home side ahead 79-74 with 35 seconds remaining before Mack converted a runner along the base line to pull TTU back within three points, 79-76.
Against a press defense that forced the Redhawks to turn the ball over 12 times in the second half alone, Simmons broke free in transition and converted a layup, but once again, Mack answered with a putback that pulled the Golden Eagles within three points, 81-78, with less than 10 seconds remaining.
Tahj Eaddy was quickly fouled with 8.3 ticks left on the clock, and the freshman knocked down both of his shots at the charity stripe to extend the Redhawks' lead to five points and seal the victory.
Southeast finished 25 of 30 (83.3 percent) from the free-throw line, including 14 of 17 (82.4 percent) in the second half.
"When it's all said and done, the thing that saved us was the fact that we were so effective from the free-throw line," Ray said. "Both teams got to the free-throw line a lot. ... I think our guys really did a good job of stepping up to the free-throw line and knocking down some clutch free throws."
The two teams combined for 54 fouls, as the Redhawks had a pair of key contributors foul out in the final minutes. Denzel Mahoney was called for his fifth foul at the 4:23 mark of the second half, while Trey Kellum fouled out with 2:52 to go.
Eaddy proved to be the difference for Southeast in the second half, during which he led the Redhawks with nine points. He finished with 13 points and was 4 of 4 from the stripe.
"He's just such a calm, cool, collected person. He's never afraid of the moment," Ray said. "I don't care what's going on. We're playing at Indiana, he just drives in there and goes and makes plays and has the confidence to do it. Now he doesn't have the body to do it yet, but I'm really liking what I'm seeing from him and his ability to stay calm, cool and collected and still go and make plays."
An 8-0 run in the first half ended when Cleveland splashed in an 11-foot jumper along the base line, giving Southeast a 15-6 lead with 14:44 remaining in the half.
The Golden Eagles pulled within two points, 25-23, when Aleksa Jugovic hit a 3 from the left key at the 8:23 mark, but the Redhawks answered with a 17-5 run, spanning a little more than four minutes.
TTU struggled to find an answer for Cleveland's jump shot, as the senior scored 17 of his points in the first half alone. Southeast led 46-34 at the break.
"The thing that stood out to me is he jumped first, he jumped higher, he stayed in the air longer," Ray said about Cleveland. "The defense has no chance. I don't care what kind of defender you are. ... He had space and clearance to make that shot, and I just thought he did a great job of not settling and getting to those sweet spots and raising up and making plays."
Mahoney drained a 3 from the left key to spark an 11-3 run for Southeast with 12:17 remaining, a burst that ended when Eaddy pulled up from the right corner and knocked down a triple at the 10:18 mark. TTU was far from done, though.
Mason Ramsey, who scored 16 of his team-high 19 points in the second half alone, followed with a conventional three-point play off a putback to spark a 20-4 swing for the Golden Eagles.
"I just thought Ramsey just wore us out in the post," Ray said. "We had no answer for him, so we've got to be better post defenders. I just thought that whoever we put on him -- Trey, (William) Tchiengang, Milos (Vranes) -- he just had his way with us."
Southeast struggled to find rhythm against TTU's press defense, knocking down only two shots from the floor inside the final 10 minutes. The Redhawks shot 58.8 percent from the floor in the second half but were held to only 17 attempts.
Kellum finished with 11 points, and Mahoney pitched in 10 points before both fouled out. Jamaal Calvin chipped in eight points and a game-high six assists for Southeast, which shot 60.5 percent (26 of 43) from the field, including 61.5 percent (16 of 26) in the first half.
Mack contributed 14 points for the Golden Eagles, who were 44.1 percent (26 of 59) from the floor, while Savonte Frazier poured in 10 points. TTU's top scorer, Jugovic, finished with 12 points but was limited to 3 of 12 (25 percent) from 3-point range.
"We just tried to kind of make him put it on the floor and contest everything -- make him put up tough shots," Eaddy said about defending Jugovic. "... They started making shots, and when they started making shots, things started rolling for them.
"We just did a good job of keeping our head and pulling it out."
The Redhawks are now 6-2 at home but will look to improve on their 1-8 road mark when they take the road Saturday to face UT Martin (11-8, 1-3). Tip off is scheduled for 6 p.m.
"We had some mental errors down the stretch, but that comes with the game. The most important thing is that we stayed together and pulled out a win -- a big win at that -- and protected our home court," Cleveland said. "... I think it's a big win for us just to let people know within our program that we're here this year and that we can win some games and be tough to beat.
"I think we can take this forward and run with it."