By Ken Cross
Middle Tennessee, CUSA’s top team, wound up in the middle of an old-fashioned fist fight in Saturday night’s 78-73 win over last-place Charlotte. The Blue Raiders held but a 73-70 lead with 1:40 remaining when guard Tyrik Dixon knocked down a triple off the right baseline which allowed the Blue Raiders to get their final separation at 76-70 and pull out the victory.
That it came down to that point in the game was hardly predictable, to say the least, but the 49ers do scrap and fight despite the most tumultuous season in history and in an arena that no longer is enveloped with fans.
“I just want to give a lot of credit to Houston (Fancher) and his staff,” said Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis, “I thought they played just like that against UAB. Had a chance and the game was tied. Tonight it looked like we were ready to put the game away and it was 12. It looked like those guys never stopped. They played their tail off. I thought Houston has really done a good job with this team.”
When Antwain Johnson scored from the top of the circle with 7:39 to play, Middle Tennessee took a 68-56 lead and it was the second time in the second half that the Blue Raiders had built back a double digit lead after a 49ers run. Johnson led all scorers with a career-high 23 points as he found spots all over the floor to score from in hitting 10-of-15 baskets. He also netted a big basket from the top of the key with 4:29 remaining to push MTSU’s lead back to eight at 71-63.
“He has been really playing good lately,” said Davis, “In the last five games, he has been averaging about 18 per game. We really needed it tonight with Potts not in it. He is a really good offensive talent. He is starting to guard a lot better. He’s one guy on our team on the perimeter who can jump up and make a play in the zone.”
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Nick King, coming off a 17 points and 17 rebounds performance in the Blue Raiders’ 66-59 win at ODU on Thursday where he scored 14 of his points in the final 4:14. King had another double-double with 24 points and 12 boards as he scored 12 of his points in the second half.
“For minutes played, it’s amazing what he does,” said Davis, “He rebounds the ball. You saw him tonight. He has been at that free throw line a lot of times and he makes them late in the game. He gets an offensive rebound and puts it back and he made three great plays at Old Dominion to win the game. For a fifth-year graduate player, he has really bought in. He makes plays to win the game.”
Charlotte shot 53 percent from the field despite the Blue Raiders’ defensive improvement since CUSA play began. The Blue Raiders had ramped up the defensive end even more in their last three games as all three opponents had shot under 37 percent.
“We have became a much tougher defensive team,” commented Davis, “We went to Hawaii and had great chances to beat Miami and USC and we got beat. We scored in the 80s and got beat. We never get beat almost when we score in the 70s.”
When the Blue Raiders score 70-plus points, they are 72-8 since 2013-14. This season, they are 12-3 when going for 70 or more. They have out-rebounded the opposition in 17 of their 23 games.
“We have really hunkered down as far as defending and rebounding. Tonight we scored the ball a little bit better but we have won a bunch of games in the mid-60s by guarding, rebounding, and we have been defending the three better.”
The Blue Raiders finally get a bevy of home games as five of their last seven are in Murfreesboro. Despite a 10-1 road record, Middle Tennessee needs to see it’s home court where they are 7-1.
“We have played a national schedule and we have two wins over SEC teams and I think if we get into the NCAA Tournament, we can win a game,” said Davis who presided over wins over Minnesota and Michigan State during the last two tournaments, “I think we can play nationally. We have been on the road, unbelievably, throughout the year. It will be nice to get five at home but it doesn’t mean anything.”
Middle Tennessee has an RPI of 21 and a non-conference strength of schedule of four. There is a strong possibility they can rise in seeding as well as they will be a tough matchup despite the seedings.