MARTIN, Tenn. – The University of Tennessee at Martin men’s basketball team was boosted by stellar bench play this evening in an 84-77 triumph over Ohio Valley Conference West rival Eastern Illinois at the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center.
Trailing by nine points with 17:49 left in the contest, UT Martin head coach Jason James inserted five new subs – Khristian Taylor, DeMarc Richardson, Mike Liabo, Chandler Rowe and Bobby Jones. Those five – along with Tobias Dowdell, who checked in a little over three minutes later – provided 32 of the team’s 50 points in the second half to help the Skyhawks overcome an 11-point deficit.
“I thought the second group really answered the bell when their time came,” James said. “A lot of times throughout a basketball game, you obviously play your first five guys a majority of the minutes but those guys were a little flat and thought Eastern Illinois would stop playing. We needed a spark so we went with the second group and they work hard in practice every day just like everybody else. The message was that it doesn’t matter which five – we just need five on the floor that will play together and play with a little bit of energy.”
Liabo led UT Martin (7-15, 2-5 OVC) with 20 points in 22 minutes for his 17th career 20-plus point performance. However, the unsung hero of the night was Taylor, who registered season-highs of 11 points and five assists (against zero turnovers) in 20 minutes of play.
James praised the aggression shown by Taylor, a junior out of Akron, Ohio who entered tonight’s game with 12 points in 15 games this season.
“We’ve been trying to get Khristian to play like this in a game-type setting for a long time,” James said. “Today he looked like he was relaxed when he was on the floor. He has a different gear than what everybody else has and he is one of the most athletic guys on a very athletic team. His ability is off the charts and he gives us an added dimension.”
Terence Smith poured in 19 points on an efficient 7-of-9 shooting performance, including a 4-for-6 effort from three-point range. Dee Oldham added 12 points and Myles Taylor pulled down a team-high seven rebounds to go with a game-high three steals for the Skyhawks, who shot an even 60 percent (15-for-25) in the second half.
Eastern Illinois (6-13, 3-5 OVC) was led by 20 points by Chris Olivier while Sherman Blanford tallied a double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds. Keenen Anderson added 11 points for the Panthers.
The Skyhawks found themselves in an early 4-0 hole but quickly recovered to take an 11-6 lead thanks to back-to-back trifectas from Smith. A three-pointer by Marshun Newell at the 10:27 mark of the first half pushed UT Martin’s advantage out to 18-11.
Yet another triple off the hands of Smith gave the Skyhawks their biggest lead of the night at 25-17 with 7:37 remaining in the first half.
The Panthers would soon go on a 10-2 run that resulted in a 32-31 lead. UT Martin would tie the score two more times before trailing 37-34 at the halftime break.
Smith’s 14 points led all scorers at the half while Anderson and Olivier accumulated eight points apiece for Eastern Illinois.
The Panthers would convert all three of their first three field goal attempts in the second half – all of which took place in the paint. That prompted the call to the bench from James.
Immediately after Eastern Illinois opened up its biggest lead of the night (47-36) with 16:01 to go, the Skyhawks poured in a trio of three-pointers in a span of 2:12 to quickly slice their deficit to four points at the 13:30 mark.
Khristian Taylor then accounted for four straight points and after a pair of Dowdell free throws with 9:18 left to play, the Skyhawks owned their first lead (55-54) since the waning moments of the second half.
Eastern Illinois would reclaim the lead but Oldham knocked down a pair of three-pointers over a stretch of four possessions to tilt the advantage back in UT Martin’s favor.
However, Eastern Illinois led by four points with 4:13 left to play before the Skyhawks took off once again. Four different UT Martin players accounted for buckets during a crucial 10-2 run, capped off with a Smith three-pointer from the right side that made the score 75-71 with 2:01 remaining.
The Panthers would sink a pair of free throws on their next possession to get back within two points but the Skyhawks would close out the win behind a fast break layup by Liabo and a 7-for-8 effort from the charity stripe in the game’s final 49 seconds.
UT Martin has a quick turnaround before its next game, which is slated for this Saturday, Jan. 25 against SIU Edwardsville at the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center. The game serves as part of the NABC Coaches vs. Cancer Suits and Sneakers Awareness Weekend and is the nightcap of a women’s and men’s doubleheader that starts at 2 p.m.