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By Jeff Birchfield
Press Sports Writer
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (Nov. 11, 2011) – It was a simple matter of hot and cold.
Tennessee Tech’s Kellie Cook was red-hot on Friday night, hitting 9 of 12 shots behind the 3-point line in a 36-point performance against East Tennessee State. Meanwhile, the Lady Bucs were ice-cold, hitting just 29 percent of their shots in the first half and falling behind by 21 points.
The deficit proved too much to overcome as the Lady Bucs lost 87-76 to the Golden Eagles in the opening round of the Women’s Preseason NIT on Friday night at the MSHA Center.
Most disappointing to ETSU head coach Karen Kemp was leaving Cook alone to knock down so many open shots.
“It was extremely frustrating when you come out at home that flat,” Kemp said. “I felt like the first half, the only one who came out with that desire was Destiny (Mitchell).
“We knew they were a really good team going into it, but to go into halftime down by 21, we still thought we could win, but that’s hard. It takes a lot out of you. Then for Cook hitting 9 for 12 from the 3’s, that’s getting too many wide-open shots.”
Cook scored 11 points in the first 3 1/2 minutes for Tennessee Tech as the Golden Eagles jumped out to a 13-3 lead. She ended up 17 first-half points as Tech built a 48-27 lead.
Staying with the hot hand, she continued to blister the ETSU defense, even when the Lady Bucs switched from a one-on-one to a 2-3 zone. When ETSU cut the deficit to seven points with 2:13 remaining, Cook responded with three straight 3-point goals.
“I was just focused on hitting shots,” said Cook after making 12 of 18 shots overall. “This summer, I finally got healthy. I had been hurt the past two years, but I got healthy and got in shape. I just tried to play hard, play hard on defense and grab some rebounds.”
She also ended with a team-high seven rebounds, as Tech held a slight 41-36 advantage on the boards.
If facing Cook wasn’t bad enough, Ohio Valley Conference Preseason Player of the Year Tacarra Hayes provided Tech 21 points and nine assists.
The Golden Eagles, who finished 23-8 last season, advanced to play at UCLA on Sunday. A trip to the West Coast was a nice reward for the Cookeville-based team.
“When we have Tacarra and Kellie step up on the same night, we’re pretty hard to beat,” Tech head coach Sytia Messer said. “We’re excited about the trip. We’re going to fly out of Knoxville tomorrow night, land in L.A. and go enjoy Hollywood.”
A positive for the Lady Bucs was a 28-for-32 performance at the free-throw line. Destiny Mitchell made 12 of 13 attempts on her way to a team-high 22 points.
She was the team’s workhorse, playing 37 of the game’s 40 minutes.
“We just tried to work hard to get back in the game,” Mitchell said. “We just have to be better prepared for teams like this. We have to come out focused and be ready to go.”
Tarita Gordon struggled in the first half with six points, but came on strong with 10 points in the final 68 seconds to end with 21 points.
“We put ourselves down in a big hole with the 21 points in the first half,” Gordon said. “But, we showed we were going to keep fighting to the end. We cut it down to seven at one point, but then had a mental breakdown and left their hottest shooter open. We just have to step it up and keep going at it.”
ETSU will play in a consolation bracket game next Friday against an opponent to be announced later today.
The season opener gave Kemp plenty of areas where she said the Lady Bucs need improvement.
Mitchell and Gordon were the only players to end in double figures as the Bucs hit just 41 percent from the field. They continued to struggle from the perimeter, knocking down just 2 of 12 shots behind the 3-point arc.
“The first half, we shot 29 percent from the field in our house,” Kemp said. “You expect to do that sometimes on the road, but not on your home court. We’ve got to do a much better job hitting perimeter shots.
“We’re doing a good job taking it to the hole and making free throws, but we’ve got to knock down some outside shots.”