By MIKE HUTCHENS
Messenger Sports Editor
UT Martin’s men are no longer the whipping boys of the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Skyhawks — winless in league play a year ago — put together back-to-back conference wins for the first time in two seasons and evened their home record at 5-5 with a 72-65 upset of Eastern Kentucky Thursday night at the Elam Center.
The surprise victory over the No. 2 club in the OVC East Division improved UTM’s league mark to 3-7 and has the Skyhawks on the fringe of making the conference’s eight-team postseason tournament after they failed to win in league play in 16 games a year ago when they posted a 4-27 record overall.
Myles Taylor posted his sixth double-double of the season and 10th of his two-year career with game-highs of 21 point and 14 rebounds, and Mike Liabo pitched in 16 points as UT Martin became the only team other than conference-leading Belmont to beat EKU (16-6, 6-3) in the Ohio Valley Conference this year.
The Colonels had entered the contest ranked No. 19 in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25.
“We want to get a seat at the table (OVC Tournament), and to do that, we have to play well and have some belief in ourselves,” Skyhawk head coach Jason James said after his squad improved to 6-16 overall and followed up a 65-62 road victory vs. SIU-Edwardsville five nights earlier. “We know now how we have to play to be successful and how we have to execute.
“We’ve proven that we’re capable, and tonight was another good example — but not the only one we’ve had. Yeah, it was one of better games, but I don’t know that it was the best we have played or as good as we’re capable of playing. We just have to build on it, rather than being satisfied with it.”
Neither team led by more than seven points in the contest that had 11 lead changes and nine ties.
The Skyhawks, who held a monster rebounding advantage (51-26) behind Taylor, went in front for good with just over seven minutes to play on a Liabo jumper that made it 55-54.
Perhaps the biggest shot down the stretch was made by Terence Smith, who drained a long 3-pointer in front of the UTM bench with 1:53 showing that gave his team a five-point advantage.
Less than a half-minute later, Smith canned two free throws to put the Skyhawks up 66-59 and UT Martin held on from there — making 6-of-10 from the charity stripe with both Dee Oldham and BJ McLaughlin sinking a pair apiece in the final 30 seconds after the visitors had cut the difference to a deuce.
“We’ve been waiting for Terence to make a big shot, and that was a huge one after he’d missed a couple of open looks,” James said of Smith, a redshirt sophomore guard who missed 10 games earlier this year with a broken ankle. “He’s at about 75 percent right now, and if we can get him to 85 or 90 percent down the stretch, we’ll be a much better basketball team.”
Jeremy Washington had 12 points for a consecutive double-figure scoring outing for the Skyhawks, who shot 50 percent (10-of-20) in the second half after making but 37 percent, 10-of-27, in the first 20 minutes.
EKU made eight first-half 3-pointers, including three straight by Glenn Cosey during a four-minute stretch late in the stanza. A pair of Smith charity tosses in the final minute forged a 35-all intermission deadlock.
UT Martin did a considerably better job defending the Colonels’ outside marksmen of Cosey and Mike DiNunno in the final 20 minutes, holding a duo that was 7-of-14 in the first half to 2-of-13 in the second. All totaled, EKU was 4-of-22 (22 percent) from behind the arc after the half.
“We wanted to match up out of our zone, and we were really flying around a lot better in the second half,” James said of a defensive effort that limited the Colonels to 35 percent shooting in all.
UTM was particularly good at the foul line, hitting 28-of-34 (82.4 percent) with Taylor making all but two of his 13 attempts and both Smith and Washington 4-for-4.
“I thought Myles did a great job — especially in the first half — of just going and getting the ball, and then getting to the foul line,” James responded when asked about Taylor’s effort.
The 6-7 sophomore ranks in the OVC’s Top 5 in scoring (16-6) and rebounding (7.9).
The Skyhawks must wait a week before continuing a four-game OVC homestand, their next game Feb. 7 against SIU-E.
Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in The Messenger 2.1.13