Skyhawks ‘storm’ into OVC tourney

Skyhawks ‘storm’ into OVC tourney
Skyhawks ‘storm’ into OVC tourney
The UT Martin men weathered storms both on and off the court Thursday evening.
The Skyhawk men overcame a 16-point first half deficit and two weather delays due to a pair of tornado warnings in Martin — which totaled an hour and 22 minutes — to prevail by a 78-70 count over Eastern Kentucky.
With the triumph, UTM has locked itself in as at least the No. 8 seed in next week’s Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.
“I’m excited for the young men on this team,” said Skyhawk head coach Jason James, who utilized four freshmen among the eight athletes he played on Thursday. “Getting to the conference tournament has been one of our goals. It’s huge for our young players to get to play there as freshmen, but it’s also a testament to our seniors that they’ll be in their school-record fifth OVC Tournament game.”
UT Martin (11-19, 6-11 in league play) could possibly finish seventh in the OVC if it can upset Morehead State on Saturday evening.
With the Eagles looming, James told that his team’s regular-season work is not done.
“I’m happy that we now have the ability to keep playing on, but we have to get back to work on Friday and ready for Morehead State,” James said. “We’ll celebrate this one tonight, but on Friday we have to turn our attention to the next game.”
The Skyhawks’ rally began after the game’s second weather delay — a 45-minute stoppage in play that took place with 12:55 remaining in the game — at about 7:27 p.m. when a tornado warning was issued for Martin.
After the teams returned from the locker room, UTM, which up until that point had been down by a range of 10-15 points for all of the first seven minutes of the second half, started to click.
“I think the second stoppage in play really helped us,” James said. “We weren’t doing well (up until that point), but after the delay, we got it together and came out focused and on fire.”
Down 54-44 as play resumed, the Skyhawks embarked on a 12-2 run that ended with the game knotted up at 56.
During the spurt, Benzor Simmons shined with two layups and a pair of free throws, while Mike Liabo busted a trifecta.
The Colonels (15-14, 9-8 in OVC play) retook the lead on three more occasions before UTM embarked on a 13-1 run, turning a 61-60 deficit into a 73-62 advantage.
Simmons got the spurt started with a trey from the right corner that put UT Martin up for good. The senior Skyhawk also had three free throws and a layup as UTM distanced itself and took an 11-point lead when its run concluded with just over a minute to play.
Though Simmons’ eight points during the exchange were well-documented in the box score, the contributions of Chris Richardson were not.
Richardson logged crucial minutes as Reuben Clayton was cycled in and out of the game with four fouls for the final near 13 minutes.
“Benzor stepped up and Chris Richardson helped us keep the game under control,” said James. “Liabo also had a big 3.
“It boiled down to everyone answering the bell for us.”
Liabo was UT Martin’s leading scorer with 21 points, while Simmons had 18. Clayton and Terence Smith both also hit in twin figures with 16 and 15 tallies, respectively.
Sports reporter Kenneth Coker can be contacted by e-mail at kcoker@ucmessenger.com.

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