COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — With Tennessee Tech attempting to hold on to a late lead Saturday against Southeast Missouri, sophomore point guard Jr. Clay grabbed a rebound, turned and fired a full-court baseball pass. It was partially tipped, but after one bounce it reached wide-open forward Amadou Sylla, who corralled the basketball and laid it in the hoop.
The former McCallie School standout's long pass drew a stare — perhaps a glare — from Golden Eagles coach John Pelphrey, who eventually turned around, shaking his head. But that score put Tennessee Tech in front 69-59 with 1:12 remaining, and the Golden Eagles went on to win 71-62.
They improved to 9-20 overall and 6-10 in the Ohio Valley Conference while trying to stay in the race for one of the top eight spots in the standings, which would mean a trip to the league tournament next week in Evansville, Indiana.
"Junior is always in aggressive, attacking mode," Pelphrey said Saturday. "At the end of the day, decisions and choices for all of us are important in all walks of life — especially for a point guard, especially for a leader of the basketball team. I had no problem with him throwing the ball down the court, but I think he threw it from his waistband and the guy touched the ball, and that would have been obviously a not-so-good play had it been given back to them, but maybe it was our night.
"There was a moment there that maybe I was overreacting a little bit, but his smile just melted my heart, so it all turned out great."
Player and coach had to figure each other out when Pelphrey, who had been an assistant at Alabama since 2016, took over the program in Cookeville this past offseason.
And then the 6-foot, 160-pound Clay — who made the conference's all-newcomer team and the All-OVC second team as a freshman — struggled early this season, shooting just 26% from 3-point range and averaging 10.4 points and 3.2 assists per game for the Golden Eagles. He had averaged 14.4 and 4.3 last season to lead the team in both categories, and his struggles caused Pelphrey to take him out of the starting lineup for back-to-back games in late November.
Since OVC play began in January, Clay has improved dramatically.
He ranks ninth in the league in scoring in conference games (16.1 points per game) and seventh in assists (4.4). He's shooting 37% from 3-point range. And the team is winning — at least lately, with victories in four of their past five games.
"Coach just kept telling me he needed me to be who I am," Clay told the Times Free Press on Saturday. "He wanted me to keep leading the team, be the leader. He's told me from day one that I'm the leader of the team, so even though I wasn't starting and things weren't going well — I wasn't scoring the ball well, wasn't assisting well — he just told me to stay with it and keep leading the team."
Pelphrey admitted that early in the season he may have been getting ahead of himself in terms of expectations for the team, especially for players in bigger roles, such as Clay. The former Kentucky player, an assistant at Florida for four seasons before going to Alabama, had previous head coaching stints at South Alabama (2002-07) and Arkansas (2007-11), compiling a 149-126 record with an NCAA tournament berth at each program.
"I've been blessed as a player and as a coach to be in situations that are always sharpening the spear," he said. "We never had to go back to day one, week one, but coming here we are day one, week one. So for some of the guys — especially (Clay) — I was getting ahead of myself. I wanted him to be perfect all of the time, and none of us were ready for that, so I was able to continue to motivate, continue to teach.
"One thing about Jr. is he allows me to coach him. That creates value in him as a player and builds trust for myself. He's done a really great job of learning and growing with that."
After coming from a high school program that averaged 25 wins each of his four seasons and qualified for the state tournament twice — finishing as the runner-up once — Clay is now a part of a program that has won a total of 17 games in his two seasons. It's been quite the change, but Tennessee Tech is 4-3 this month and sits a game behind Jacksonville State for the eighth and final spot in the conference tournament.
The Golden Eagles have one head-to-head win against the Gamecocks, 75-74 on Feb. 13 in Cookeville, and a sweep of the regular-season series would give them the tiebreaker. Tennessee Tech, which is Nashville on Thursday night to face Belmont, gets that chance Saturday in the regular-season finale in Jacksonville, Alabama.
"It's definitely hard, just going through all that, but like Coach said, he really stresses not being results-oriented," Clay said. "He's a great leader, and he's telling us that every day. On the outside looking in it might be more difficult, but that record doesn't say who we are. We always get in the last four minutes and lose the game there.
"We always knew we had a good team. It's just showing late."