Skyhawk women can’t ‘bye’ hype

Skyhawk women can’t ‘bye’ hype
MARTIN — A strong case can be made for the UT Martin women being the pre-tourney favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.
Just don’t tell Kevin McMillan.
“I don’t know if I’d say that,” the Skyhawk head coach said, despite his team racing past Morehead State 88-69 Saturday night to clinch the No. 2 seed in the upcoming event. “Eastern Illinois has won eight or nine in a row and is the preseason favorite and starting to play well. And (regular season champion and top seed) Tennessee Tech, even though they’ve hit a little bit of a lull at the end of the year, they have experience. Plus, I really don’t know how well we’re playing right now.”
What McMillan couldn’t dispute is that his UTM team (19-10, 14-4) has played well enough to beat Tech (83-56) and Morehead — figured to be its toughest competition in the league tournament — in convincing fashion over the last two weeks.
Saturday’s triumph was the Skyhawks’ 16th straight at home and gave them not only the No. 2 seed, but also a double-bye into the semifinals of the tourney, which will be played at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium this week.
UT Martin will play at 2 p.m. Friday against an undetermined opponent, with a berth in Saturday’s championship game — where that victor will get an automatic NCAA Tournament bid — at stake.
Play-in games are set for Wednesday at noon and 2 p.m. on the women’s side, with the men’s bracket to feature similar matchups pitting the No. 5 seed vs. No. 8 at 6 in the evening, followed by No. 6 against No. 7.
The Skyhawks used a 23-5 burst to start the second half to storm from behind after they’d trailed by as many as nine points before the intermission.
Four different UTM players (Heather Butler, Alicia Weatherly, Taylor Hall and Jasmine Newsome) drained 3-pointers during that stretch with Butler twice knocking down shots from beyond the arc to help the Skyhawks surge to a 59-44 lead after they were down 39-36 at the break.
Morehead (20-9, 13-5) aided the UT Martin run by missing seven of its first eight shots of the second half and committed six turnovers during a 71⁄2-minute stretch.
“They shot the ball well the first half, and we were actually fortunate to be down just three points,” McMillan continued. “We got them in a little foul trouble and I’d hoped we’d be a little better offensively in the second half, but I sure didn’t see what happened coming.”
UTM made eight of its 11 3-pointers in the second half when it shot 53 percent from behind the line.
Newsome and MSU’s Chynna Bozeman — the conference’s preseason Player of the Year and leading scorer — each put on a clinic, but essentially canceled each other out during a second-half stretch that saw each light it up from all angles.
Bozeman got her team back in it by making three 3-pointers and a 15-footer during a span in which she was personally responsible for 11 unanswered markers to get the visitors to within six, 61-55.
After the Lady Eagles had crept to within 66-64 with 6:12 to play on an Ashar Harris bucket, UTM outscored them 22-5 the rest of the way with Newsome making 12 consecutive points to highlight the run.
Newsome finished with a game-high 33 points — one more than Bozeman — and also snagged eight rebounds and dished out four assists. Bozeman finished with nine assists and seven boards to fill out her own sterling stat box.
The Skyhawks got a huge bench contribution from freshman Perica Glenn, who finished with 11 points and eight rebounds in just 18 minutes to provide a legitimate post presence.
“The key to the game, no doubt,” McMillan said of Glenn. “She made them think we had somebody they had to guard in the post and that opened things for us on the perimeter.”
Morehead 77, UTM 64 (M)
Naismith and Wooden Award finalist Kenneth Faried had 24 points and 18 rebounds as Morehead (22-9, 13-5) locked up the No. 2 seed in the OVC tourney and slotted the Skyhawks into the eighth spot.
UTM (11-20, 6-12) will face No. 5 seed Tennessee State, a team it was swept by in the regular season, in a first-round play-in game on Wednesday.
A 12-2 Eagle run midway through the second half broke open a tight game in UT Martin’s home finale Saturday.
The Skyhawks had clawed back from a 22-9 deficit after a slow start and took a 33-31 halftime lead by scoring 24 of the first half’s final 33 points.
Twice, Mike Liabo forged tie scores with 3-pointers in the final three minutes before intermission with Benzor Simmons then sinking two free throws in the final 30 seconds to give UTM a small advantage at the break.
Simmons had 18 points to lead a parade of four Skyhawks in double figures. Terence Smith added 16, Liabo had 14 and Troy King 10.
With Faried — the nation’s most prolific rebounder in the modern era leading the way — Morehead enjoyed a commanding 40-24 advantage on the boards.
Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by e-mail at mhutch@ucmessenger.com.

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