Depleted and demoralized, the Tennessee State men’s basketball team appeared to be down and out after losing 87-72 to Belmont more than two weeks ago.
With two injuries and another player out because of personal reasons, the Tigers were down to just six scholarship players and two walk-ons. The loss to the Bruins was their fourth straight and fifth in their first six games of the season.
While that game didn’t turn out the way the Tigers would have liked, it provided them with some hope. Down by 26 at halftime, they cut the lead to 11 twice against a deep Belmont team.
“We played better in the second half. We had better effort [against Belmont]," coach John Cooper said. “I think there was a sense of that that helped our group establish some confidence to a certain degree and a understanding of what it takes, what it is going to take to compete with really good teams and really good programs. We were able to do that and we were able to parlay that into the next game.”
That next game was their Ohio Valley Conference opener at Eastern Illinois. The Tigers were a free throw away from sending it to overtime, falling 68-67.
TSU built off that, though, winning on the road at conference rival Southeast Missouri State and then at Alabama A&M. On Sunday, the Tigers returned home and defeated Division II opponent LeMoyne-Owen 84-48 at the Gentry Center.
It was their third straight victory and gave them a 4-6 record heading into Sunday’s home game against OVC foe Morehead State (6-4).
“It has taken some time for the coaching staff as well as the players to really adjust and to figure out who we are, what we are,” Cooper said. “Over the past couple weeks, we have just played better. We have developed some more depth. Guys have been thrown into the fire that had to play. So it has allowed us to grow as a unit, get familiar with each other. That is what has started to happen.”
Tennessee State is still without Tashan Fredrick (knee) and Jerret Towns (ankle) but has received a boost from Jacquan Nobles. The sophomore guard scored 13 points against LeMoyne-Owen and a season-high 14 against Southeast Missouri State.
He did not play against Belmont due to what Cooper called a “leave of absence.” Cooper said that matter has been resolved.
“As a player you have a job to do and as a coach you have a job to do and that is to coach you up,” Cooper said. “Obviously you are not going to always agree with your coaches. But my point to Nobles was that don’t let the fact that you’re missing shots dictate the player that you are. Even though you are missing shots, you got to do more. ... There are other ways to bring some confidence to your game. He has been knocking down shots and I think it has helped him and I think it has helped our team.”
• MTSU preps for bowl: When Middle Tennessee State plays Miami (Ohio) in the GoDaddy.com Bowl on Jan. 6 in Mobile, Ala., 32 days will have passed since the Blue Raiders last played a football game. There will just be four bowls left after the GoDaddy.com Bowl, including the BCS national championship game.
The long layoff, however, doesn’t concern MTSU coach Rick Stockstill. The Blue Raiders (6-6) ended the season on a three-game winning streak and any momentum they had might be gone due to the dead period. Stockstill, though, doesn’t think that will be the case.
“I have talked to several coaches throughout the country that have played here in the last couple years' national championship game and in a game played this late in January, and I got an idea of how they handled it, some things they did,” Stockstill said. “So I have a lot of confidence in the plan that we’ve put together.”
MTSU will practice on Thursday for the first time since defeating Sun Belt Conference co-champ Florida International in the last regular-season game on Dec. 4.
“They weren’t able to go home for Thanksgiving because we played [that weekend] and then going into the first week of December makes for a long year,” Stockstill said. “So I wanted to give them some time off mentally as well as physically.”
The Blue Raiders will practice through the weekend and then head home for the Christmas break. They will start practicing again on Dec. 27 and will head down to Mobile on Jan. 2.
They hoped to be joined by a huge contingency of Blue Raider faithful. Stockstill was in Mobile on Monday for a press conference and is encouraged by what will be in store.
“There will be a lot of fun things to do for our families, for the fans, for everybody to experience Mobile,” Stockstill said. “I just hope we don’t start taking bowl games for granted. We are going to the GoDaddy.com bowl for a lot of reasons but one of the reasons is because of the support we showed in the New Orleans Bowl last year. We have to continue that as we build this program.”
For more information, on the festivities or to buy tickets, which are available for $45, visit www.goblueraiders.com/bowl.
• Meyer, Olney return to Nashville: Former Lipscomb coach Don Meyer and ESPN.com writer Buster Olney will back in town Friday for a luncheon at Lipscomb to talk about Olney’s book How Lucky You Can Be: The Story of Coach Don Meyer.
The luncheon will take place at noon at McQuiddy Gym, which was recently renovated. The cost of the luncheon is $10. For more information, contact Brent High at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meyer and Olney will also sign copies of the book on Saturday from 5-8 p.m. at Allen Arena as both Lipscomb basketball teams play Kennesaw State that night.
Meyer is the all-time wins leader in college men’s basketball and coached the Bisons from 1975 to 1999. More than two years ago, while at Northern State University, he was in a near-fatal car accident that led to the amputation of his left leg below the knee and the discovery of terminal cancer. He made a miraculous return, coaching from a wheelchair that season. He returned for one more year before retiring after last season. He now travels around the country giving speeches and raising money for Northern State.
Olney, a Vanderbilt alum, covered Meyer when he was a writer for the now defunct Nashville Banner. After working on a documentary about Meyer for ESPN, Olney decided to write the book of Meyer’s resiliency.
• TSU’s Clifford earns All-American honors: Tennessee State safety Eugene Clifford was named to the Walter Camp Foundation FCS All-American team on Tuesday.
Clifford, a senior from Cincinnati, finished the season with 83 tackles, four interceptions, 10 pass breakups and 14 pass deflections.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder was just named to his third All-Ohio Valley Conference team and is a finalist for the Sports Network’s FCS Buck Buchanan Award, which is given to the top defensive player in the country.
• Blue Raiders’ Rowe wins weekly award, again: Middle Tennessee State forward Ebony Rowe won her second Sun Belt Conference women's basketball player of the week award, the league announced on Tuesday.
Rowe, a freshman from Lexington, Ky., averaged 18 points and eight rebounds in three games last week for the Blue Raiders (7-3). The 6-foot-1 Rowe had 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting and nine rebounds in a win at Central Florida last Tuesday. She followed that up with 13 points and eight rebounds in a loss to No. 4 Xavier at home. She capped off the week with 21 points, making 9-of-13 shots, and grabbed seven rebounds on Sunday against visiting James Madison.
Rowe leads the team with 16.3 points and 9.0 rebounds a game.