BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Middle Tennessee (19-15) pulled off another strong upset Friday behind the lights-out second half shooting of junior DJ Jones, defeating second-seeded UTEP 53-50 to advance to the Conference USA Championship Game Saturday.
The sixth-seeded Blue Raiders will face fourth-seeded UAB in the title game.
MTSU found themselves trailing throughout the first half. The Miners jumped out early, leading by as many as ten. The Blue Raiders hung around though, finding ways to cut into the deficit. Down 21-11, MTSU went on a 7-0 run to pull to within three at 21-18 with 7:07 left in the first half.
The Blue Raiders scored only two more points the rest of the half, but its defense kept UTEP in check. MTSU went in at half trailing 25-20.
In the second half, the Blue Raiders were led by the strong shooting of Jones. The junior guard scored 15 of his 17 in the second half, burying four pivotal three-pointers. Jones’ first three gave MTSU its first lead of the game at 37-35 with 8:40 remaining.
Jone scored the next eight points for the Blue Raiders. His scoring spurt put MTSU ahead 42-35 with 6:40 left to go. A 9-4 run by the Miners put them within two, 46-44, with 3:27 remaining.
However, Jones struck again. He hit his fourth three-pointer of the second half, putting the Blue Raiders up 49-44 with 2:52 to go. UTEP had cut the lead to three with 11.5 seconds remaining, but an Omega Harris three at the buzzer fell short, giving MTSU the 53-50 upset victory.
Jones, a JUCO transfer, finished with a game-high 17 points, including 15 points and four three’s in the second half. Jones finished 5-of-9 from the field, and 3-of-4 from the free-throw line.
Sophomore Reggie Upshaw finished the game with 10 points and seven rebounds. Junior Perrin Buford backed up his strong showing in Thursday’s win against Old Dominion with 10 points and three blocks. Buford has scored in double digits in all three games at the C-USA tournament.
The Blue Raiders finished just 19-of-53 from the field (35.8 percent). UTEP finished 20-of-50 (40 percent) from the field. A key stat for the Blue Raiders Friday was three-point shooting. As a team, MTSU finished 8-of-22 from three-point land, compared to 5-of-17 by UTEP.
MTSU turned the ball over just eight times in the game, while the Miners turned the ball over 12 times. The Blue Raiders also defended well, finishing with six blocks.
Cedrick Lang led UTEP (22-10) in the game, finishing with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting, while also grabbing eight rebounds. Vince Hunter finished with nine points, six assists, and a game-high 14 rebounds.
Middle Tennessee is looking for its first conference tournament title since 1989. This will be MTSU’s first time playing in the title game since joining C-USA in 2013.
MTSU is also looking to go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since it received an at-large bid back in 2013
The Blue Raiders will face fourth-seeded UAB for the C-USA’s automatic bid. The Blazers swept the regular season series 2-0. UAB won 54-49 in Murphy Center on Jan. 14, and defeated the Blue Raiders in Birmingham 100-95 in a triple overtime thriller on Jan. 28.
Tip-off for the championship game is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. CST. The game will be broadcast nationally on Fox Sports 1.
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