Tennessee State dealt the Redhawks their third straight loss 81-69
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Southeast Missouri State men's basketball team rebounded from Thursday's 35-point loss at Belmont with a spirited second-half comeback
But the Redhawks couldn't overcome the big hole they dug themselves in the first half.
The Redhawks suffered their second road loss in three days as Tennessee State held off Southeast 81-69 on Saturday night.
"We tried to make up for the other night, but it's really tough on the road to dig that kind of deficit," said senior guard Nick Niemczyk about TSU's 17-point lead early in the second half that was sliced to three points late in the game.
Southeast fell to 10-9 overall and 2-3 in Ohio Valley Conference play. The Redhawks have dropped three straight -- all to upper-echelon OVC squads.
Three-time defending OVC champion and West Division favorite Murray State rallied to beat the Redhawks last Saturday. Then came the losses to Belmont and TSU, picked one-two in the East Division and undefeated in league play.
"This summer when the schedule came out, I knew this stretch would be very difficult for us," Southeast coach Dickey Nutt said.
Southeast never led Thursday at Belmont, and the Redhawks' only lead Saturday was 2-0.
TSU (11-7, 5-0) scored the next eight points and built a 25-11 advantage midway through the opening period. It was 43-29 at the break.
The Redhawks fell behind 48-31 early in the second half but refused to suffer their second straight blowout defeat.
"I was proud. It would have been really easy to pack our bags at halftime. They showed me something," Nutt said. "If we start a game with the passion we had in the second half, we'll have a lot better chance on the road."
Southeast cut the deficit to 70-67 on a 3-pointer by Niemczyk with 3 minutes, 46 seconds left.
But the Redhawks managed just two points the rest of the way and were outscored 8-0 after a short jumper by junior forward Tyler Stone made it 73-69 at the 2:37 mark.
"We just didn't come up with enough stops at the end," senior guard Corey Wilford said.
The Tigers iced the victory by making 6 of 6 free throws in the final 33 seconds.
"We had our chances, but then we had to foul them and they hit their free throws at the end," Nutt said.
TSU continued its impressive run without its top player.
Robert Covington, a 6-foot-9 senior forward and NBA prospect who is averaging 17.4 points and 7.7 rebounds, is expected to miss several more games with a knee injury.
The Tigers are 6-0 since Covington went down.
"They're just as good without him," Nutt said. "They're a team to beat in this league."
A variety of players have picked up the slack in Covington's absence.
Saturday it was Kellen Thornton's turn.
Thornton, a 6-8, 243-pound senior forward who was averaging 13.8 points and 7.4 rebounds, had career highs of 28 points and 16 rebounds. He scored 19 points in the first half.
"Defense right now is the big problem for us," Nutt said. "Every inside guy in the league has a field day against us right now."
Junior guard Patrick Miller added 20 points for the Tigers.
Wilford paced Southeast with 15 points. He made 4 of 6 3-pointers and added seven rebounds.
"We just got to start better on the road," Wilford said.
Sophomore forward Nino Johnson scored 14 points on 7 of 9 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds.
"I thought Nino had a really good game," Nutt said. "He worked hard to get good position and finished around the rim."
Niemczyk hit 4 of 8 3-pointers and scored 13 points. Stone had 13 points and eight rebounds.
"Our effort in the second half was really good. We have to start the game that way," Niemczyk said. "Tennessee State is a really good team."
The Redhawks tied a season high with 11 3-pointers and shot 50 percent from beyond the arc. They made 43.3 percent from the field overall.
Southeast hurt itself by making just 6 of 16 free throws, a dismal 37.5 percent. TSU hit 19 of 22 free throws, a strong 86.4 percent.
"You can't miss 10 free throws," Nutt said.
TSU shot 49.1 percent after Belmont blistered the nets for 61.5 percent. Austin Peay shot 53.1 percent four games ago. All that came after the Redhawks limited their first 15 opponents to 45.6 field-goal shooting or less.
The Tigers cooled off to 36.7 percent in the second half after hitting 64 percent in the opening period.
"We can't play that soft on defense and let a team shoot 64 percent in the first half," Nutt said.
The Redhawks play their next two games at home, Thursday against Morehead State and Saturday against Tennessee Tech. Both tipoffs are set for 7 p.m.
"We're going to get back in the gym and work even harder," Wilford said.