Drama, freshmen send Southeast Missouri State men's basketball past Tennessee State in OVC Tournament
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Southeast Missouri State men's basketball coach Rick Ray hasn't wavered all season when assessing his freshman class.
Ray believes he has the best group of first-year players in the conference, and on Wednesday night, that assessment appeared more evident than ever before.
Freshman Tahj Eaddy knocked down a game-winning 3-pointer from well beyond the left arc with 2.2 seconds left in overtime, as the fifth-seeded Redhawks erased a 14-point deficit in the second half and pulled out a 78-75 win over No. 8 Tennessee State in the opening round of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament at Municipal Auditorium.
Denzel Mahoney led all scorers with a career-high 34 points for Southeast, which advances to take on fourth-seeded Jacksonville State at 6:30 p.m. today.
Mahoney, who was named OVC Freshman of the Year on Tuesday, shot 8 of 19 from the field. He also did damage at the free-throw line, where he finished 14 of 15.
"I'm really proud of the way that those guys battled," Ray said about his team. "I think Tennessee State presents a huge problem for any team because they're one of the better defensive teams in the OVC.
"They're such a physical team, and they're going to make you play a tough, hard-nosed, physical ball game."
The Redhawks (15-17) faced a 44-30 deficit with 17 minutes, 10 seconds remaining when Christian Mekowulu converted an old-fashioned three-point play to cap a 10-2 run for the Tigers (17-13) at the start of the second half.
Neither team scored until the 13:46 mark when Antonius Cleveland knocked down a 3 from the right corner, and Mahoney hit trey 4 minutes later cut MSU's lead to seven points, 49-42, as Redhawks kept chipping away.
"We were getting stops, but our offense was so dead," Cleveland said about SEMO's second-half offense. "... We just finally got stops and started to compete on the other end and scored the ball and cut into their deficit, and then we just kept getting stops and hit a couple 3s. And boom, we were right back into the game."
Southeast finished 35 percent (21 of 60) from the field but benefited from 27 TSU turnovers, including 15 in the second half. The Redhawks scored 23 points off those turnovers and held Tigers senior Tahjere McCall to 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting. McCall committed a game-high seven turnovers.
"Just keeping pressure on the ball screens and on McCall mainly," Mahoney said about his team's defensive effort. "We tried to keep him out of the paint and make him make plays that he's not usually comfortable making."
With Cleveland and senior Trey Kellum battling foul trouble, Southeast methodically chipped away at the deficit before taking the lead inside the final minute.
A steal by Eaddy led to a fast-break opportunity for Cleveland, who drove to the other end and laid the ball into the basket while drawing contact from McCall. Cleveland converted his free throw to polish off the three-point play and give the Redhawks a 74-72 lead while sending McCall to the bench with his fifth foul and 37 seconds left in regulation.
With 27 seconds left, TSU's Armani Chaney hit two free throws to tie the game at 74-all, as Cleveland's last-second attempt from behind the right arc rimmed out.
Southeast scored the first five points in overtime, but the Tigers used a 5-1 run to pull within 73-72 with 19.1 seconds to play.
Eaddy was quickly fouled and hit both free throws, but Ken'Darrius Hamilton answered with a trey from the right key, tying the game at 75-all with 7.6 seconds left.
Instead of calling a timeout, Ray opted to let his team play out its final possession. Jonathan Dalton received the inbounds pass and quickly moved the ball up the court, finding Eaddy standing well behind the arc. With a defender in his face, Eaddy quickly released his shot and splashed it in.
"I know Tahj made the huge shot there to win the ball game, but the play was really made by Jonathan Dalton," Ray said. "I thought Jonathan did a great job of pushing the ball up the court right away because that's the best time to make something happen.
"I don't want to call a timeout. I want us to try to get them on their heels because I'm sure they're celebrating a little bit. They're kind of relaxing a little bit, so Jonathan did a great job of pushing the ball up the court and going and making a play."
Following a TSU timeout, Southeast went into a full-court press and didn't allow the Tigers to attempt a final shot.
Eaddy finished 2 of 9 from the field but was 4 of 4 from the charity stripe. He ended his night with 10 points.
"It felt great because obviously I struggled offensively, but I just tried to affect the game whatever way I could," Eaddy said. "A lot of things don't go into the stat sheet, but I just tried to be a leader for this team.
"I'm just glad the shot went in."
Cleveland finished with 16 points and six rebounds in 31 minutes of action. Kellum fouled out in overtime, finishing with nine points and six rebounds.
"Unfortunately I've learned to adapt to foul trouble because we're in foul trouble every single game," Ray said. "Trey Kellum is always going to be in foul trouble, and we don't have a lot of depth. So what we talk about is, 'Hey, we've been here before.' So whether we play small or our version of big, you've just got to go out there and, we call it guard your yard, and then we play as one. ... I think we get so many unnecessary cheap fouls by reaching. Some of these fouls, are going to happen in the course of a game, but we've just got to eliminate the reach-in fouls."
Wayne Martin led the way for the Tigers, finishing with 19 points and eight boards before exiting the game with five fouls in overtime. Chaney added 14 points for TSU, while Hamilton pitched in 10 points off the bench.
The Tigers finished with a 49-30 advantage on the boards.
In overtime, getting to the free-throw line proved to be the difference for the Redhawks. Southeast finished 27 of 34 (79.4 percent) from the charity stripe, including 7 of 10 in overtime alone.
In the first half, Southeast led by as many as eight points, 16-8, when Mahoney knocked down a 3 from the left wing with 12:15 left before halftime.
The Tigers answered with an 18-5 swing, but with Cleveland and Kellum on the bench with two fouls for much of the half the Redhawks stayed close and went into halftime trailing 34-28.
"That just speaks to the depth that we have," Ray said. "Last year we wouldn't have been able to sustain any sort of momentum with those guys being in foul trouble, but now we've got more weapons. ... Now we're able to sustain that because of the fact that we've got guys who can make plays on the offensive end when they're out."
Ray showed plenty of faith in recruiting Mahoney and Eaddy, but he probably wasn't expecting to be sitting next to them in the postgame press conference.
He believes the two players have made tremendous strides in adjusting to the Division I level during their first season.
"I thought we really did a great job when we recruited them, but they really assimilated to college basketball quickly," Ray said. "Sometimes the physicality of going from high school to college is overwhelming because you've got 18-year-old guys playing against 22-year-old men that have had three years of offseason lifting weights, and they've done a good job."
A willingness to attack the paint has added another dimension to Mahoney's game.
In SEMO's offense, the 6-foot-4 guard plays a non-traditional role as a stretch forward, which makes him a tough mismatch for opposing defenses.
"The thing that's really evolved with Denzel's play is the fact that I thought he was a jump shooter at the beginning, and what he did and does now is he really attacks the paint," Ray said. "There's so many people closing out to him because of his ability to shoot the basketball. Now he's using that ability to shot fake and get by people to go make plays, not just for himself but also for others, and so I really think he just figured it out.
"The other part of it, too, is just defensively he ended up guarding McCall there down the stretch and really did a great job. You're talking about a guy who doesn't guard perimeter guys off the ball screen and off the cut, and we put him on McCall. And I thought he did a great job of guarding him."
Southeast will now turn its attention to a Gamecocks squad that caused plenty of problems earlier this season in Jacksonville, Alabama.
The Redhawks watched a four-game winning streak come to an end at the hands of JSU in a 74-62 decision on Feb. 1.
Ray said recovering from Wednesday's thriller will be the biggest key against the Gamecocks.
"I told these guys, for them, they've got to sleep," Ray said. "They can't be jacking around at night. They've got to get fluids in their system because we knew that this was going to be a grind. ... It's all about activity when you go out on the court, so we want to make sure that our guys take care of their body.
"What we don't want to do as coaches is we don't want to inundate them with information. We want to keep it simple. We've got to pick and choose what we want to show them so they can go out and execute the simple things, and at the end of the day, we've got to rely on our principles that we've been teaching them for six months to go out and play."