Ousted UTM uses no excuse

Ousted UTM uses no excuse
NASHVILLE — Jason James refused to use a viable excuse following UT Martin’s season-ending 83-59 loss to Tennessee Tech.
“If playing back-to-back nights is an alibi, then don’t finish eighth. That’s our stance,” the Skyhawk head coach said Thursday night after his team was eliminated from the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament in the quarterfinals.
“We’re not gonna take (excuses) that. We will have stand-up guys who are accountable.”
A poor shooting performance — 35 percent from the field, including 30 percent from 3-point range — brought the obvious notion of ‘tired legs’ after eighth-seed UTM had admittedly expended a great amount of energy in rallying to upset No. 5 Tennessee State in a play-in game just 24 hours before Thursday’s year-ending setback.
“Sure, it (Wednesday night) may’ve affected our legs a little, but we got offensive sensitive there late in the first half and they ballooned the lead out,” said James, whose team tripled (12) its win total from his first season and won an OVC tourney game for just the second time since the school joined the ranks in 1992. “Some of it, too, had something to do with us not getting back on defense and there was a carryover.
“We missed a bunch of shots and we got beat bad on the boards.”
Except for one first-half stretch when they scored on seven of eight possessions, and another after the intermission when they reeled off 10 straight points to cut into a sizable and insurmountable deficit, the Skyhawks were terribly offensively-challenged.
Mike Liabo and Troy King — two of UTM’s quartet of solid freshmen who provide hope for a bright future — combined to shoot just 3-of-19 from the floor and finished with nine points between them. Liabo came in averaging 11.3 ppg, third on the team, while King was just short of double figures at 9.8.
A closer look at the final stat sheet also supported James’ comments as his team was out-rebounded 46-33 and did not convert a single second-chance opportunity while Tech had 16 points on putbacks.
The Golden Eagles also held huge advantages in points off turnovers (25-11) and points in the paint (50-18).
Tech (19-11), which advances on to play regular season conference champion and perennial power Murray State tonight at 6 in the first of two semifinals, closed out the first half with a 21-4 flurry to take a 38-24 intermission advantage after the Skyhawks’ best offensive stretch of the night.
Benzor Simmons, one of four seniors, and Terence Smith — another of the team’s talented frosh — combined to score all but two points in a 16-2 burst that gave UT Martin its biggest lead at 18-12 with 8:36 left in the first half.
That offensive proficiency was short-lived, though, as the Skyhawks made just three more field goals before the break while TT was going on a 21-4 run, capped by Zac Swansey’s 3-pointer at the buzzer that widened the gap to 14.
Tech, which got a double-double of 16 points and 16 rebounds from athletic Jud Dillard and a game-high 24 markers from Kevin Murphy, officially buried UTM with an 18-7 run over a 7 1/2 minute stretch to open the second half. The Skyhawks made just three field goals during that time, two by Smith, while falling behind by 25, 56-31.
A run of 10 straight markers that included two buckets by Smith, King’s only points, and a jumper by Rueben Clayton briefly gave UT Martin hope and closed the difference to 62-47 with 6:37 to play before TT scored seven in a row to remove any doubt regarding the outcome.
Simmons, who earlier in the season became just the 15th member of the program’s 1,000-Point Club for his career, matched Smith’s 16-point effort in his last game in a Skyhawk uniform. Clayton wrapped up his UTM playing days with 11 markers.
Andres Irarrazabal and Daron Hood were also seniors on the Skyhawk roster, the former starting 27 games this season.
James’ efforts as one of the nation’s youngest coaches in the country did not go unnoticed after his program improved on a 4-25 mark in his rookie campaign a year ago.
“He took a team that was picked to finish 10th in our league and got them to the conference tournament,” veteran Tech skipper Mike Sutton said of his counterpart afterward. ”He did a great job. He’s a good, young coach.”

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