Skyhawk image is much sharper

Skyhawk image is much sharper
UT Martin is gradually shedding its image as the “whipping boy” of the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Skyhawks won their third straight league game and beat the conference’s top-ranked defensive team in a 63-62 triumph over Eastern Illinois Saturday night at the Elam Center.
Benzor Simmons drained a 3-pointer with less than a half-minute left to give UTM just its second lead of the contest, and the Skyhawks then withstood a pair of EIU shots in the waning seconds to improve to 3-7 in the OVC after dropping its first seven league outings.
UT Martin, which won only one of 18 conference games a year ago, is now 7-14 this season after going 4-22 in the 2009-10 campaign.
“I think that last year, and several years before we won the league championship two seasons ago, everybody sort of looked at Martin as a good place to go to get an easy win,” second-year Skyhawk head coach Jason James said after Saturday’s triumph vs. a Panther team that had beaten perennial OVC power Murray State on the road in its last outing.
“We’re gradually getting better, and our young guys continue to work hard and battle. We are starting to show that teams might beat us, but we’re going to show up every night and give good effort. It’s certainly not a given anymore that teams are guaranteed a win when they play us.”.
The youthful Skyhawks — who led just one other time (57-56) other than at the final tally — displayed a grittiness throughout the contest, as evidenced by the fact that EIU scored the game’s first nine points.
UTM trailed by as many as 10 points in that first half and again by that margin (51-41) with just under 12 minutes to play.
Freshman Mike Liabo scored eight unanswered points over the next four minutes, though, to help the Skyhawks cut into that deficit as the Panthers (8-11, 4-5) went more than three minutes without a point.
UT Martin took its first lead with 4:09 left via an 18-footer by another frosh — Troy King — that made it 57-56.
The visitors immediately scored on consecutive possessions to go back in front with three minutes showing, but made only one field goal the rest of the way.
A floater by UTM’s Terrance Smith and then one-of-two free throws by Smith forged a 60-all deadlock with 60 seconds showing.
Jeremy Granger’s drive to the bucket with 42 second to go put the Panthers up again by a deuce before Simmons — whose game-high 21 points left him just nine shy of 1,000 for his career — made a 20-footer from the right side of the key at the 26-second mark to give the Skyhawks their eventual slim advantage.
Simmons’ clutch trey was one of just three made in 17 attempts by UT Martin.
Granger then missed two potential game-winners in the final 12 seconds.
“We defended well and that allowed us to stay in the game when we didn’t necessarily shoot the ball that good,” James added. “It’s who we ere are right now. A lot of time with young guys, their defense feeds off their offense, but we have sold them on playing good defense first and then letting the offense come.
“As far as Benzor on the game-winner, we tell our guys that you have to be ready every night, because your number can be called at any time. Tonight, we called (Simmons’) No. 1.”
Like Simmons, UTM’s second-leading scorer came off the bench as Liabo hit for 15 points. Smith tossed in a dozen markers, while hard-working Andres Irarrazabal snatched a team-high nine rebounds.
The Skyhawks won despite shooting just 43 percent (25-of-58) from the field. Having just nine turnovers committed helped UT Martin overcome that subpar marksmanship.
UTM plays at SIU-Edwardsville — a school that will officially join the OVC next season — tonight, then looks for its first victory ever at regional rival Murray State on Saturday.
Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by e-mail at mhutch@ucmessenger.com.

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