BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Middle Tennessee (19-16) saw its conference tournament streak end Saturday, falling in the C-USA Championship to Alabama-Birmingham 73-60 at Legacy Arena.
MTSU was looking for its first conference tournament title since 1989 when they were a part of the Ohio Valley Conference, and its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013. The Blazers (19-15) won their first conference tournament title since 1987, and it is their first C-USA tournament title since joining the conference in 1995. They were a member of the Sun Belt Conference at that point. It is their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011.
MTSU is now 5-4 all-time in conference title games. They have gone 0-4 since its last tournament championship in 1989.
The Blue Raiders found themselves ahead early in the first half of Saturday’s championship game, but a 10-0 run late in the half put the Blazers up 26-16 with just under six minutes left. MTSU continued to try to cut into the lead, but ultimately found themselves trailing at the break 37-26.
The main reason the Blue Raiders were down at the half was due to turnovers. After turning the ball over only eight times in its semifinal game against Texas-El Paso, MTSU committed eight turnovers in the first half
The Blue Raiders were in a similar position in its last game with UAB on Feb. 28. MTSU trailed 37-25 at the half in that game before making a comeback in the second half that sent the game into overtime. The Blue Raiders eventually came up short in that contest, losing 100-95 in triple overtime.
The two teams traded buckets in the first few minutes out of the locker room. A four-point play by junior DJ Jones at the 16:30 mark, cutting the Blazers’ lead to nine, 44-35, but UAB always seemed to have an answer to every big shot MTSU made.
At the 13:49 mark, the Blue Raiders had cut the lead to just eight, but a quick 8-0 run by UAB extended the lead to 16. This put the game out of reach. The Blazer cruised from that point, building their lead to as much as 22, to the 73-60 win and an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Overall, the Blue Raiders did not shoot poorly on the afternoon. MTSU shot 18-of-43 from the field (41.9 percent). UAB seemingly could not miss though, finishing 27-of-52 from the field (51.9 percent). They shot a balmy 14-of-22 (63.6 percent) from the field in the second half on their way to routing the Blue Raiders.
UAB’s size was too much for MTSU all day, as they dominated on the glass, outrebounding Blue Raiders 33-23, including 24 defensive boards.
Passing was pivotal in UAB’s win. The Blazers finished with 21 assists as a team on 27 made baskets.
Junior Jaqawn Raymond led the Blue Raiders in the game, finishing with 12 points.
Junior Perrin Buford finished with 11 points and grabbed five rebounds, however, seven of his 11 points and all five of his rebounds came in the first half. He was largely not a factor in the second half. Jones was also in double figures, tallying ten points.
Buford and Jones were named to the all-tournament team. Buford led the Blue Raiders in the tournament, scoring 13.8 points per game. Jones, who was largely not a factor during the regular season, provided some much-needed scoring for MTSU in the tournament, averaging 10.8 points per game and making nine 3-pointers.
Robert Brown was the driving force for the Blazers on the day, finishing with a game-high 22 points on 6-of-11 shooting including four 3-pointers. Brown also recorded and four assists five rebounds in Saturday’s contest. He was named MVP of the tournament after the game.
William Lee finished with 13 points for UAB on 6-of-8 shooting from the field. Lee also grabbed six rebounds in the Blazers’ win. Lee and Brown were named to the all-tournament team as well..
Middle Tennessee’s hopes of playing in the NCAA Tournament ended Saturday. The Blue Raiders hope to play in one of the other postseason tournaments though.
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