MURFREESBORO — During the first third of Tennessee State’s season, big man Robert Covington has been a barometer of the Tigers’ success.
In wins he plays great. In losses he struggles.
On Tuesday night, the team’s leading scorer was stuck in neutral even before he went down with an injury to his right knee with 42 seconds left. Covington led all scorers with 17 points but missed 13 of 17 shots as the Tigers suffered a 77-48 whipping to Middle Tennessee State at the Murphy Center.
“Robert Covington is a marked man,” first-year coach Travis Williams said. “Folks know about him. You have to be aggressive. You got be smart with the basketball. They’re going to run and jump you and try to take you out of what you’re capable of doing. But more important than that, we have to give a better overall team effort.”
In the final minute, the 6-foot-9 senior banged his knee against an MTSU defender above the 3-point line, right in front of the TSU bench. Covington, the team’s leading scorer at 17.5 points a game, lay on the floor for several moments before being helped off the court and to the locker room. After the game, he stood on his right knee while using crutches.
Williams said Covington would undergo an MRI on Wednesday to determine the seriousness of the injury.
His presence is crucial to the Tigers (5-7). He has thrived in wins, scoring more than 27 points three times. In losses, he has been less dominant, scoring more than 20 points just once.
“It affects the rest of our team because a lot of our offense, a lot of what we do goes through Robert Covington,” said Williams, who spent the last three years as an assistant to John Cooper, who is now at Miami (Ohio). “When he is in a groove, we’re all in a groove. Not only that, Kellen Thornton didn’t have the night [eight points before fouling out] he is capable of having. When those two guys struggle we tend to struggle a little bit. But I embarrassed by [Tuesday’s performance]. I thought we practiced well this week but we just have to be consistent.”
A preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference selection, Covington underperformed against MTSU (8-3) with seven NBA scouts on hand, including former Miami Heat star Tim Hardaway.
Covington was quiet in the first half, barely touching the ball in the opening minutes. When he did shoot, many of his shots were left short. He was one of six from 3-point range and got most of his points at the foul line (eight-for-10). He also committed four turnovers and was hassled by MTSU’s 6-foot-2 guard Marcos Knight.
“He is a really good talent,” MTSU coach Kermit Davis said. “But I thought our physical-ness got underneath him and didn’t let him get going. He is a really good standing shooter. I sure hope that his injury is minor and it is nothing serious at all. He is a really good player.”
The Tigers, who had won four of five, never led and never threatened after the first two minutes. A slew of turnovers — they finished with 20 — put them in a hole and MTSU responded from a tough road loss at Belmont last week.
Four Blue Raiders scored in double figures. Raymond Cintron led the way with 15 points, matching a career-high with five 3-pointers.
Ahead by 15, Cintron buried any chance of a TSU comeback when he sunk three straight 3-pointers, contributing to a 43-20 halftime lead.
“They came at us. They were aggressive,” Williams said. “They were in attack mode and our guys didn’t respond.”
The rest of the Tigers didn’t offer much help in their seventh straight loss to the Blue Raiders. As a team, TSU shot 29.8 percent (14 of 47) and made just 1 of 14 3-pointers. Poor shooting has done them in nearly half their losses with three games under 30 percent from the field.
“I guess we had bus lag,” Thornton said. “We were just getting off the bus. There aren’t really any other excuses for that. We have had a couple bad nights shooting. But I think it is something we can work on. Better shot selection. One more pass. I don’t think that will happen again.”
For a team that returned four starters after winning 20 games and reaching the OVC Tournament final last year, the Tigers have lacked resolve. They have played a grueling non-conference schedule that has featured just three home games, two ranked opponents (Missouri and Minnesota) and six teams that reached the postseason last year.
Williams believes the tough lumps against good competition will pay off. It did last year as the Tigers caught fire in January and February and finished second in the OVC.
“I’m still excited about our team. We are a very good team,” Williams said. “Games like this most definitely help. When you compare the Sun Belt to the OVC, games like this definitely can help us. We just have to learn from them and watch game film and look at our mistakes. And we just have to get guys capable of finishing plays.”