By Ron Wynn
It was a game where winning coach John Cooper said in the post-game press conference “looking at the stat sheets I don’t know how we won.” But Tennessee State University overcame both a 12-point second half deficit and a three-point barrage from Mike DiNunno to post an exciting 91-85 double overtime victory Saturday night over Eastern Kentucky University before 1,600 plus fans at the Gentry Center. With less than three minutes remaining EKU was ahead by five, and TSU looked as if they would lose a rare OVC home game. Instead, the Tigers regrouped, courtesy of a Kenny Moore three-pointer and a layup by Jordan Cyphers, sandwiched around two crucial defensive stops.During the first overtime, TSU forged three different leads, but each time EKU would tie the score. They were greatly aided by very tight officiating, hitting five free throws in that period. But TSU finally took the lead for good on a layup by M.J. Rhett and two free throws from Patrick Miller. However the person who again led the way was OVC Player of the Year candidate Robert Covington. Despite playing the last few minutes of regulation and both overtimes with four fouls, Covington had 22 points and eight rebounds. On a night when pro scouts from the Nets, Thunder and Bucks were in the stands, he grabbed the night’s two biggest rebounds in the second overtime and also had the final two free throws of the game (though he did miss a pair earlier). Covington added two blocked shots and two steals while logging 40 minutes.”I wasn’t worried about fouling out,” Covington added. “My concern was helping the team, and making sure I did my part. We’ve got enough people that can play so that if I had fouled out, someone else was there to take my place.” It was definitely a team effort on TSU’s part. They have five scorers in double figures. Moore had his best game of the season with 15 points, two assists and a career-high five steals. Kellen Thornton had 14 points and hit six of seven shots from the floor, but left the game with an undisclosed injury. “He really didn’t look right from the start,” coach Cooper added. “We think he might have a virus or some other problem. He played really hard and well, but after he looked woozy during an exchange, we took him out. I told him, his health is far more important to me than winning any game.” Thornton’s status for Monday’s game against Austin Peay was unknown at press time.Rhett had his best scoring game with 11 points, while adding five rebounds, a block and an assist. Patrick Miller tied a career high with eight rebounds, and provided another 11 points. Miller also had four assists and three steals. Wil Peters had nine points and five assists, while Cyphers had seven points.It took that balanced attack to offset a big night from EKU’s DiNunno and Jaron Jones. They proved extremely difficult for TSU’s guards to handle on the perimeter, and when they drove inside they repeatedly picked up fouls. DiNunno also hurt the Tigers with his impressive long-range accuracy. He had seven three-pointers among his 33 points, several of them from NBA territory. Jones had a string of acrobatic moves and maneuvers on his way to 30 points, but he missed a pair of free throws in the second overtime that were critical to the Tigers’ victory. “We really couldn’t handle either of them outside,” coach Cooper said. “They kept making big shots, and when they drove to the goal, a lot of times our guys were slow rotating over. They have hurt us before, and they were both excellent in this one.”Austin Peay was Monday’s opponent at the Gentry Center. Then come road trips to SEMO Saturday night and Murray State Feb. 9.
EKU had a six-point halftime lead, closing out the opening 20 minutes with a 14-8 run. They stretched it out to 12 early in the second half, before TSU roared back to go ahead by six. The final three minutes of regulation were dramatic, with EKU seizing what looked like a winning lead, only to see TSU come back and tie things up. The same thing happened in reverse during the first overtime, and it was still tied at 86 in the second before TSU finally prevailed.
“This stretch of playing Thursday, Saturday and Monday is very tough for us,” Cooper added. “We’ll only have a Sunday practice to get ready for Austin Peay Monday night. EKU is a tough enough team to prepare for when you have a normal stretch. When you only have one day to put something in, it is even more difficult.” TSU managed to survive EKU shooting 60 percent from the floor in the first half (15 of 25). They improved on that percentage over the course of the game, but EKU still shot almost 56% for the game. But the Tigers out-rebounded them 37-34, had 18 assists. They also had 11 steals, several coming late in regulation and during the overtimes.
“We’re steadily becoming a better team,” Cooper concluded. “It has taken me time to learn this team, but now we’re at a point where everyone is rooting for each other on the bench, and picking each other up. We’ve got guys who used to be regulars who aren’t playing as much now and it’s a tough thing. But we’re coming together and that’s something good to see, especially when we have to go on the road soon against SEMO (2nd in the conference) and Murray State (first and the nation’s only undefeated team in Division 1 at press time).”