By Bob Flynn
Register Sports Writer
The Colonels (16-4, 6-1 OVC) used red-hot shooting and in-your-face defense to down Tennessee State (12-9, 6-2 OVC) 76-67 Thursday to push their home-court winning streak to 11 games.
The win gives EKU sole possession of second place in the OVC East Division, one game behind Belmont, which is set to visit McBrayer Arena on Saturday.
After going almost three minutes without scoring to begin the game, the Colonels hit a red-hot 67 percent of their shots in the first half, including six-of-10 three pointers, that allowed them to open up a 39-24 halftime lead.
The Colonels cooled off a little in the second half, shooting 42.9 percent, but finished the game hitting at a 55.6 percent clip from the floor and 44.4 percent from behind the three-point line.
“Our team really defended in the first half. We held Tennessee State to 24 points and also caused 11 turnovers, so that is what caused the havoc in the second half,” EKU coach Jeff Neubauer said. “We forced Tennessee State to play a little bit differently than it wanted to play coming into the game. We forced them to press because our defense was so good and got us the big lead.”
Tennessee State scored the first nine points of the second half to cut the Colonels’ lead to six (39-33).
But as they have done so often the past five games, Mike DiNunno and Corey Walden once again stepped up and stemmed the tide for the Colonels.
DiNunno hit two free throws and Walden had a bucket to push the lead back out to 10.
With 10 minutes left in the game, the Tigers sliced the Colonels lead to four at 49-45, but DiNunno and Timmy Knipp hit back-to-back three pointers and Walden added a basket to push the lead out to 12 at 57-45.
For the third straight game, DiNunno finished with 24 points. He also had seven assists, while Walden had 22 points, five rebounds and three assists.
Neubauer said the two recognized they needed to step up with Glenn Cosey out the last five games and Orlando Williams missing the last two.
“Mike understands that he really does have to lead us. His defense in the first half was tremendous. It all starts with him on the ball and offensively he has been hitting some tough shots and he’s been a great leader with the ball,” Neubauer said. “Corey Walden has really stepped up as well and those two guards have been the difference in the last several games.”
The play of the game came with just more than seven minutes left in the game when Marcus Lewis took an alley-oop pass from DiNunno and slammed it home with one hand to give the Colonels a 59-46 lead.
Two minutes later, DiNunno gave EKU its biggest lead of the game, hitting six consecutive free throws on one trip following a technical foul on a Tiger player and one on TSU coach Travis Williams.
Tennessee State refused to quit and got to within six points late in the game, but another dunk by Lewis, a basket by Jeff Johnson and two free throws each by DiNunno and Walden ended any hope the Tigers had of a comeback.
Eric Stutz finished in double figures with 10 points and also pulled down eight big rebounds, while Knipp continued his strong play of late, hitting three three-pointers and finishing with nine points, one rebound, one assist, two blocked shots and one steal.
Neubauer said the play of Stutz and Knipp were a big difference in the game.
“I’m really happy to see Timmy Knipp play well offensively. To step up and make his first three threes he took really helped us,” Neubauer said. “And Eric Stutz getting eight rebounds. That is a continuing weakness for us, so for him to get eight rebounds really does make a difference.”
Lewis finished with seven points and two rebounds and played 29 minutes with no turnovers and drew the approval of Neubauer, who constantly stresses valuing the ball.
Jeff Johnson was the only other Colonel to crack the scoring column, finishing with four points and three rebounds, and was a big part of the strong interior defense in the first half that shut down the Tigers and allowed the Colonels to build the big lead.
The Colonels now have a rematch with Belmont on Saturday at 7 p.m. with first place in the OVC East on the line. Belmont is 16-4 on the season and one game ahead of the Colonels in the East with a perfect 7-0 OVC record.