University of Tennessee-Martin dominated in the first half, taking a 39-23 lead, and then held on for a 75-67 victory over the Bowling Green State University men’s basketball team Saturday at the Stroh Center.
In the opening half, UT Martin outscored BGSU in points off turnovers, 11-2, in the paint, 18-6, on second chance points, 9-2, in fast breaks 7-5, and even bench points, 13-5.
The Falcons drop to 4-7 while the Skyhawks improve to 7-5. BGSU coach Michael Huger says his team is still trying to find its identity, in part because transfers are in the process of learning the system.
“It’s so difficult when you coach at this level and you have so many different personalities and so many different feelings and all the other stuff that comes with it,” Huger said.
“Before the portal, we were able to build a program. Now each year we must field a team and there is a big difference when you have to field a team. We are still learning our team at this stage,” Huger continued.
“The teams that are better now are the older teams — the team that has been able to play together and been together for a couple years and understands the system and how to play. Right now, we’re still learning the system and how to play together and not making it all about me.
“If we can get everybody playing hard, not everybody playing well, but playing hard on the same day we’ll be good. But that’s the challenge I have is to get everybody playing hard on the same day.”
The second half saw a different BGSU team that went on a 13-0 run. The Falcons got to within two, 56-54, when freshman guard Willie Lightfoot scored in the paint with nine minutes remaining. That was as close as BGSU would get.
By game’s end, UT-Martin still had an advantage in points off turnovers (20-7), in the paint (30-22), second chance points (13-4) and fast breaks (13-9).
UT-Martin sophomore Jordan Sears had 18 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals, junior guard Desmond Williams scored 15 points, and senior guard K.J. Simon had 12 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Lightfoot led the Falcons with 15 points and four assists, senior guard Leon Ayers III had 15 points, four rebounds, and three assists, and sophomore guard Kaden Metheny was 4-for-9 from downtown and scored 12 points.
BGSU senior guard Samari Curtis scored 10 points, junior forward Rashaun Agee had nine points and a team-high eight rebounds.
BGSU senior guard Isaac Elsasser, a Bowling Green High School product, played more minutes than any other Falcon, only missing about five minutes and getting the start. Elsasser had five points, seven rebounds and two assists.
During the 13-0 run, Metheny and Elsasser hit back-to-back threes on one possession. A foul was committed away from the basket as Matheny hit his three, and on the in-bounds, Elsasser hit another.
“That was huge,” Elsasser said. “Anytime you can get more than a three-point possession it feels like winning the lottery.
“Six points on the other team — I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before, but that definitely energized us and helped us make a little comeback.”
Huger added, “(That was) huge because it showed that were able to do it. Now, we must take care of the ball, take great shots at that point, instead of now we take a bad shot that leads to their transition, and then we turn the ball over which leads to transition.”
When the Falcons got to within two, the crowd at the Stroh Center became energized, but UT-Martin got a trey from Williams and K.K. Curry scored off a steal to send it back to seven points, 61-54.
“I think they just made a couple tough shots,” Elsasser said. “A couple times they hit a deep three as the shot clock (wound down), which kind of hurts your soul a little bit.
“They made a couple shots, we missed a couple shots, and that was the ball game.”
Huger said the 6-4 Elsasser got the start and stayed on the floor for mostly defensive reasons. Also figuring into the mix was that 6-7 senior Chandler Turner was unavailable.
“Chandler Turner was out — he hurt himself. In matchups, they played (guard Parker) Stewart at the four, who is really a three-point shooter, and I thought we would get lost without (Turner), and Isaac did a great job on Stewart.
“He averages 16 a game, and he wound up getting eight, and most of those were free throws at the end of the game, so Isaac did his job. He fouled out (38.6 seconds remaining), but that was it.
“But I’m always searching for that lineup that works together, and it’s so happened to be senior guard) Brenton Mills and those guys — Isaac, Kaden, Willie Lightfoot, and Rashaun Agee.
“So, we would up going extremely small and that’s where they took advantage of us on the boards and getting second chance opportunities.”
BGSU was outrebounded 44-39 and had 13 turnovers to the Skyhawks’ eight. The Skyhawks shot 38% (26-for-68) from the floor, 9-for-28 (32%) from beyond the arc and made 14-of-18 (78%) free throws.
The Falcons were 22-for-58 from the field (38%), 8-for-27 (30%) from downtown and made 15-of-23 from the charity stripe.