In his third consecutive start since joining that first five for the Eastern Kentucky University men’s basketball team, Michael Moreno provided the Colonels with one of the rapid-fire starts that became so familiar during his sensational career with the Scott County High School Cardinals.
Moreno knocked down two 3-pointers in the first five minutes Thursday night at McBrayer Arena, helping EKU build a double-digit lead that survived for most of a 74-59 win over Tennessee Tech in the Ohio Valley Conference opener.
The 6-foot-7 freshman forward, who amassed more than 2,300 points and 1,000 rebounds while leading Scott County to three consecutive 11th Region titles and a pair of appearances in the KHSAA Sweet 16 final, finished with eight points, a team-high five rebounds, two assists and a steal in 31 minutes for Eastern Kentucky.
EKU (4-10, 1-0) snapped an eight-game losing streak, one that started prior to Thanksgiving but was largely the result of a brutal, road-heavy schedule that included a trip to then-No. 1 Louisville. It was the fifth wire-to-wire victory for head coach A.W. Hamilton, also an SCHS graduate, who is in his second season at the helm of the Colonels.
Moreno made his presence felt early when he ripped down a defensive rebound, then spotted up in front of the Tennessee Tech on the ensuing possession for a three that gave EKU a 9-0 advantage only 97 seconds into the game.
Minutes later, Moreno banked a 25-footer off the glass from beyond the top of the arc, punctuating with a shrug and a grin as the Colonels’ lead increased to 16-4.
He played a team-leading 16 minutes in the first half. Russhard Cruickshank staved off a modest run by Tennessee Tech (3-11, 0-1) with three 3-pointers in a reserve role for EKU.
Cruickshank and Lexington’s Tre King combined for 25 points in the first half, which ended with another 17-7 run and 40-30 lead for EKU.
Tennessee Tech’s 2-3 zone caused some fits for EKU to start the second half, holding the Colonels without a field goal through the initial media timeout.
Moreno’s abiilty to flash to the middle and draw the Golden Eagles’ attention with his short-range game was instrumental to the Colonels’ getaway.
His screen cleared space for a drive by Jomaru Brown that ended EKU’s lengthy drought.
A jumper from the right elbow capped Moreno’s scoring for the night and made it 57-40 with 13:40 left.
After Tennessee Tech clawed to within 10 points at 60-50, Moreno drove to the left baseline and zipped a bounce pass to Ty Taylor for a key corner three.
Shortly thereafter, Moreno dropped another dime to Darius Hicks for a dunk.
King finished with 15 points, Cruickshank and Taylor 13 each, and Brown 10 for the balanced Colonels. JacQuess Hobbs delivered eight assists for EKU, which shot 50 percent from the field and forced 16 turnovers.
It is EKU’s second consecutive win over Tennessee Tech in the series, avenging a loss to the Golden Eagles last February in an off-campus date at Georgetown College.
Tennessee Tech is coached by Paintsville native John Pelphrey, a University of Kentucky legend for his role with the 1992 “Unforgettables.” Pelphrey is in his first season since taking over for Steve Payne, a former Georgetown College assistant.
EKU will try to maintain the momentum Saturday at home in another conference clash with Jacksonville State. Tip-off is at 4 p.m.
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.