If ever there was a program that needed a monumental, jaw-dropping, shake-your-head-in-disbelief win, it was Tennessee State.
The Tigers had won about 38 percent of their games since Cy Alexander became the coach five years ago. Since then, TSU has been a case study in bad luck.
Between the injuries, academic ineligibility and just plain old fashioned under-performing, the Tigers had been struggling along. But there were signs Alexander’s group was turning the corner. Playing against power conference teams like Georgia Tech, Indiana and Vanderbilt, TSU held its own and even had leads in the second half of all those games.
So after five years of struggles and a young season of near-upsets, TSU finally got its benchmark victory, a 60-58 win at Illinois in Assembly Hall on Sunday.
“This is a breakthrough win for us,” Alexander said. “Our kids are elated because of all those close losses early in the season against teams like Georgia Tech and Indiana and Vanderbilt. I’m just happy for our university, for our fans and our players.”
It was no stroke of luck for TSU (4-7). The Tigers led most of the game and the entire second half.
A pair of TSU players who exemplify the program’s misfortune keyed the victory. Fifth-year junior Bruce Price, who has missed the last two years because of two separate knee injuries, led the way with 17 points. Mississippi State transfer Jerrell Houston, who missed most of last season because of academic issues, added 12 points.
“It wasn’t a fluke,” Alexander said. “They never had the lead in the second half. We used a match-up 2-3 zone about 90 percent of the time and it did the job. And we had all 10 players step up and play well. It was a full team win.”
Now the key is for TSU to build on the victory. Illinois (8-5) from the powerful Big Ten was 57-9 in non-conference games under coach Bruce Webber. The Tigers enter the thick of their Ohio Valley Conference schedule Thursday when they welcome Morehead State to the Gentry Center.
“You build on it by working even harder,” Alexander said. “Our kids know they can go anywhere in the country and win. We have to come in [today] and work harder to prepare for Morehead State and focus all our attention on the OVC. These are the games that matter now.”