For four weeks, Tennessee State handled the loss of Robert Covington the best way possible. It won.
Rattling off seven straight victories, the Tigers carried on with their leading scorer on the bench with a knee injury. Over an eight-day stretch, though, Covington’s absence became a lot more noticeable as TSU fell from atop the Ohio Valley Conference standings.
The senior’s return can’t come at a better time with the Tigers (12-10, 6-3) mired in a three-game losing streak. When TSU hosts Tennessee Tech on Thursday, Covington will play first game since he tore the meniscus in his right knee against Middle Tennessee State on Dec. 18.
“It is huge. We need some spark,” coach Travis Williams said. “We go on the road and lose our last three games and didn’t play up to our capabilities. So you kind of need a sparkplug, some energy and you get that caliber of a player back. He definitely makes us better.”
Williams plans to take it slow by bringing Covington off the bench against Tech in hopes of allowing him to get back in tip-top basketball shape. The return comes at an ideal time for the 6-foot-9, 215-pound forward. After Thursday’s game, the Tigers don’t play again until Feb. 7 at Austin Peay.
“I think the process for us is just working him back in,” Williams said. “We’re just trying to get his cardio back up. He is looking good. He is definitely a difference-maker in our program.”
Covington averaged team-highs of 17.7 points and 7.7 rebounds in his 12 games before he banged his knee against defender toward the end of a 77-48 loss to MTSU. The preseason All-OVC selection returned to practice for the first time on Monday and participated without limitations on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Covington said the recovery process went faster than he and doctors figured. He returns two weeks quicker than expected. He stopped using crutches four days after the injury. Twice a week he went to physical therapy sessions at Tennessee Orthopedic Alliance and also worked with TSU athletic trainer Whitney Thompson every day.
“She got me back on my feet quicker than what I thought,” Covington said. “It was a great thing because she put me in a place that I didn’t think I would be in right now. Me and my teammates have been starting to get our chemistry back with each other. It feels good to be back out here with everybody. Just to be back on the court is a blessing in itself.”
Before Covington got hurt, TSU’s offense ran through him. He averaged more than 14 shots a game. When Covington struggled offensively, so did the Tigers as was the case in the loss to MTSU.
His absence forced his teammates to step up. They responded as forward Kellen Thornton (14.5 points per game) and guards Patrick Miller (13.7) and Jordan Cyphers (11.9) helped the Tigers win their first six OVC games.
But the road got tougher — once they hit the road.
TSU dropped three straight road games to the three best teams in the OVC East Division — Belmont, Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State.
“They lost a couple close ones and for me to be back maybe it will bring back confidence in everybody,” Covington said. “They had a rhythm going and we don’t want to mess that up. I’m fine with coming off the bench. I still have to work my way back up to where I was.”
Along with Covington, junior guard DeShawn Dockery returns after missing the last three games with a groin injury. With the duo, the Tigers Tigers hope to settle back into a groove at the Gentry Center, where they’re 8-0 this season.
“[Covington] has played significant minutes so he will help a lot,” Thornton said. “He is another guy who will space the floor. I won’t get double-teamed as much. Pat won’t get double-teamed as much. It will open the floor up for us for more scoring opportunities. And he helps on defense too with his blocking and rebounding. We’re pretty excited to have all our guys back.”