Skyhawks improve playoff chances with big OVC win
Posted: Friday, February 18, 2011 11:15 am
CHARLESTON, Ill. – Playing like a team on a mission to qualify for the upcoming Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, The University of Tennessee at Martin scored the first 14 points of the game Tuesday night, setting the tone for an impressive 73-54 victory over the Eastern Illinois Panthers at Lantz Arena.
With the win, the Skyhawks improve to 10-18 but more importantly 5-11 in league play, taking over sole possession of eighth place and moving a half-game back of seventh place. UT Martin took a big leap towards reaching the postseason with the win, as the top eight teams in the league advance to the OVC Tournament at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville on March 2-5.
“The key to our team is getting off to a good start and we definitely did that tonight,” Skyhawk head coach Jason James said. “We came out prepared and mentally focused and that made all the difference in the world. We needed to be at our best tonight and we definitely were from the opening tip to the final buzzer. The guys embraced the situation and came out with a sense of urgency.”
Freshman Mike Liabo led UT Martin with a career-best 21 points, making eight of his 16 attempts from the floor. Troy King scored 13 points, as did Reuben Clayton – who also added a career-best six steals in 39 minutes for the Skyhawks, who never trailed in the game. Benzor Simmons pulled down 10 rebounds for UT Martin, which held the Panthers to 35.1 percent shooting and made 19 consecutive free throws to end the game (making 19 of 20 overall).
Jeremy Granger’s 16 points led Eastern Illinois (8-18, 4-12), while Curry McKinney scored all of his 13 points in the second half for the Panthers.
The Skyhawks scored 14 unanswered points over the first 4:21 of the contest. After Shaun Pratl scored on a turnaround in the lane, Liabo hit back-to-back long 3-pointers in a span of 30 seconds to put UT Martin on top 20-2 at the 14:14 mark.
Eastern Illinois briefly recovered to score five of the next seven points, but Terence Smith scored five straight points to put the Skyhawks ahead by 20 points at the 12:21 mark.
The Panthers did not get back within 16 points the rest of the first half, as the Skyhawks received a big lift from senior Daron Hood. The 6-7 Bigelow, Ark., native logged a season-high nine minutes in the first half alone, scoring four points and providing sound interior defense while the starting frontline of Andres Irarrazabal and King each battled foul trouble.
A pair of Clayton free throws with 52 ticks left in the first half closed out the scoring at 41-22.
At the break, Liabo led all scorers with 14 points. The Skyhawks made 10 of their first 11 shots, firing at a 51.6 percent clip while committing just two turnovers. Granger paced Eastern Illinois with nine points, as the UT Martin defense smothered the Panthers into shooting 26.9 percent in the first 20 minutes.
After McKinney scored on a layup to open the second half, Clayton stroked a 3-pointer and Irarrazabal put in two free throws to give UT Martin its biggest lead of the evening at 46-24.
However, the Skyhawks briefly went cold – allowing the Panthers to build a 7-0 run over the next five minutes. A Dane Smith off-balance jumper as the shot clock expired at the 11:41 mark gave UT Martin a 50-31 advantage.
Zavier Sanders scored consecutive buckets for Eastern Illinois to get the Panthers back within 15 with a little over eight minutes to play, but the Skyhawks stayed poised and under control. After a UT Martin missed shot, the sneaky Clayton intercepted a pass in the lane, took two big steps and threw down a tomahawk dunk while getting fouled at the 5:20 mark. Following the highlight-reel dunk, Clayton converted the free throw to complete the 3-point play and give the Skyhawks a 64-45 lead with 5:20 to play.
A wide-open King 3-pointer from the left corner with 2:30 remaining gave UT Martin a 21-point lead, and the Skyhawks held Eastern Illinois to one field goal the rest of the way to seal the victory.
UT Martin will now step out of the OVC for a Sears ESPN Bracketbuster game on Saturday, Feb. 19 at the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center. The Skyhawks will start their season-ending three-game homestand by playing host to the Bradley Braves of the Missouri Valley Conference at 2 p.m.