It's doubtful Southeast Missouri State University could have played much better than it did Thursday night.
Yet all the team had to show for it was another gut-wrenching Ohio Valley Conference defeat as Tennessee Tech squeezed out an 82-81 overtime victory at the Show Me Center.
Southeast, which dropped a double-overtime decision at Tennessee State in its most recent outing and lost by two points at Tennessee Tech on Jan. 8, fell to 6-10 overall and 1-4 in the OVC.
"We played hard and we played good enough to win," Southeast coach Gary Garner said. "It's very frustrating for everybody. We just have to hang in there."
In the earlier game with Tech, Southeast had 20 turnovers and made just 21 of 34 free throws. This time, Southeast had only 14 turnovers despite facing a full-court press most of the night and sizzled from the free-throw line at 22 of 26.
"We made our free throws, we limited our turnovers against a team that really pressed us. We did everything right," Garner said. "They are just a really good basketball team, so talented and athletic."
The Eagles (10-6, 5-0), who remained in a first-place OVC tie, have beaten Southeast four straight times -- by a total of six points.
"I'm thinking there's no way it could get closer between us and SEMO, then we go to overtime," Tech coach Mike Sutton, said. "What a great basketball game."
Tech forward Willie Jenkins, the OVC's preseason player of the year who entered Thursday's game averaging 18.4 points per game, was held to just three points in the earlier meeting with Southeast.
But Jenkins made up for that and then some as the explosive 6-foot-6 senior poured in 34 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, leading the OVC's top rebounding team to a 40-25 edge on the boards. Jenkins hit 13 of 23 shots from the field.
Jenkins' biggest shot was a step-back 3-pointer from the right side with seven seconds left in regulation that forged a 70-70 tie and forced overtime. Southeast sophomore guard Terrick Willoughby was all over Jenkins, but the jumper hit nothing but net.
"That was an unbelievable shot," Southeast senior guard Mike Nelke said. "We just can't catch a break right now. I didn't think it could get any worse for us after the Tennessee State game, but this is just as bad."
Junior forward Derek Stribling added 23 points for the Eagles, including a 3-pointer with 1:18 left in overtime that put Tech ahead for good at 82-79. The Eagles never trailed in the five-minute extra period.
"You have to give them credit. They hit some shots," said Garner of the Eagles, who shot 60 percent in the second half and 50.8 percent for the game.
Senior forward Dainmon Gonner, despite spraining his ankle late in the first half and having to come out of the game, played the entire second half and overtime while scoring a team-high 19 points. He added five steals and three blocked shots.
"We broke down a few times defensively, but we played pretty good," Gonner said. "It's hard to keep losing these games."
Also scoring in double figures for Southeast were senior forward Reggie Golson (17 points), senior guard Derek Winans (13) and Willoughby (10). Golson also had nine rebounds and increased his OVC-leading total in blocked shots by rejecting six more.
Nelke came off the bench to hit three of four 3-pointers and score nine points while dishing out six assists. Junior guard Ryan Belcher tied his season-high with eight points off the bench as he made both of his 3-point attempts. Southeast was nine of 19 on 3-pointers.
Southeast trailed by nine points midway through the first half but grabbed a 33-26 halftime lead and went up 36-26 in the opening minute of the second half. Tech used a quick 11-2 run to pull within a point and things stayed tight the rest of the way.
A Jenkins 3-pointer put Tech up 67-65 with 1:28 left, but Nelke's 3-pointer 20 seconds later gave Southeast a 68-67 lead. It was 70-67 when Jenkins nailed the tying 3-pointer.
Tech scored the first three points of overtime and led 79-75 midway, but a Winans steal and layup with 1:47 left forged a 79-79 tie.
Stribling's 3-pointer at the 1:18 mark put Tech up for good, but Golson's two free throws with 1:03 left made it 82-81.
Southeast had a chance to win in the closing seconds as Golson drove the baseline but was cut off. The ball wound up in Willoughby's hands beyond the 3-point line but his wide-open attempt rimmed out with two seconds left as Tech held on.