Texas Tech players may have expected at least a mild scolding from coach Chris Walker when they headed into the United Spirit Arena locker room at halftime Monday night, trailing winless Jackson State by three points following a dismal performance in the game’s first 20 minutes.
But that’s not exactly how it went down.
“He said, ‘I knew we were going to face this. I’m glad it happened,’” guard Jamal Williams recalled of Walker’s speech at intermission. “We made it up in our minds that in the second half, the first five minutes we were going to play our hardest defense. That’s what we did.”
Tech forced six turnovers in the first four minutes of the second half, turning the slim deficit built on horrid outside shooting into an 84-75 victory that pushed the Red Raiders to 4-0.
It often wasn't pretty. Tech shot 36 percent (13 of 36) in the first half, including 1 of 10 from 3-point range. In a flash, the Red Raiders found themselves in an 11-1 hole, punched in the mouth for this first time in this young season.
Even when Tech opened up double-digit leads in the second-half, the Tigers kept coming. They pulled as close as 60-59 with 9:23 left before Tech’s athleticism and relentless defense helped it pull away.
“It was a great test,” said forward Jaye Crockett, who scored a team-high 20 points. “They played with us. The first couple games we’d been going into the half with a lead. In this game we went in struggling. We knew we had to come out hard.”
Walker enjoyed the 24-point average margin of victory Tech had in its first three games as much as anybody, but he was also glad to see his team on the ropes at key moments in a game. He was equally pleased to see the way his guys bounced off them.
“It gave us an opportunity to lock in and really get after people,” Walker said. “You’re not going to win by 30 every night. It’s a teachable moment for our guys. Our starting lineup is four guys who have never played at this level. We would have loved to have done what we’d done the last couple of games, but every game is different.”
With No. 9 Arizona visiting United Spirit Arena on Saturday, Walker said he did “the very best job I could keeping those guys grounded,” and focused on a Jackson State (0-3) team, led by Christian Williams’ 22 points, that he knew would give his squad everything it had.
Looking ahead wasn’t the problem. Shooting was.
Tech point guards Josh Gray and Daylen Robinson combined to shoot 7 of 27 from the field — 1 of 12 from the 3-point line — and the Red Raiders finished just 3 of 21 from the perimeter overall. Walker lamented a number of missed lay-ups and easy shots by as his team — Tech did bounce back with 58 percent shooting in the second half — as well as the 23 offensive rebounds it surrendered.
But he said all those faults were easy to forgive given the way the Red Raiders played defense, forcing 25 turnovers. That number included seven steals by Gray — “That turns a game for us,” Walker said — who also managed 12 points despite the poor shooting night.
Tech limited Jackson State to 36 percent shooting for the game.
“My No. 1 thing,” Walker said, “and I tell them time and time again, we are about defense. We are about defense and locking people down. When adversity struck tonight, and it did strike, we had to dig in.”
Dejan Kravic scored 16 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked five shots. Jamal Williams added 12 points and four boards.
Walker became just the second Tech coach to start 4-0 in his first full season. He and the Red Raiders now face their stiffest test yet in Arizona (3-0), and it’s one they say they are eagerly awaiting.
“We’re all ready,” Williams said. “It’s my first time in Division-I playing a big-time team. The energy is crazy in the locker room for us.”
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