Middle Tennessee wins Conference USA championship

MTSU men's basketball team holding the conference USA championship trophy after beating Old Dominion 55-53 on March 12, 2016

Middle Tennessee played in their second-straight Conference USA championship game Saturday. The Blue Raiders out-lasted Old Dominion 55-53, increasing their all-time record against the Monarchs to 6-0 to win their first conference championship since 1989.

“It’s the best feeling in the world. As far as my career, it’s the best memory I’ll ever have, … and I know my teammates feel the same way,” Reggie Upshaw said.

“Last year we were so close to getting there, and then to turn it around this year, to win the Alaskan shootout then come back and win this conference tournament really means a lot. It’s probably the most cherished memory I will ever have.”

The Blue Raiders came in to this game going up against C-USA’s top scorer in Trey Freeman, who averaged 22.4 points per game coming into this contest.

Senior Jaqawn Raymond was tasked with guarding Freeman for much of the game, and Raymond was able to slow him down early on, forcing two ill-advised turn-around jumpers from Freeman.

Freeman was held to just 4-for-11 shooting from the field in the first half, and Raymond continued his stifling defense into the second half, holding Freeman to just three field goals. Freeman would finish with just 17 points on 7-for-23 shooting from the field.

“Guarding Trey Freeman was a team [effort],” Raymond said. “I just wanted to limit him as much as I could. I just wanted to contest each shot as best as I can, and get my hand up and use my length to guard him.”

Raymond commanded the Blue Raider offense Saturday, scoring nine points and dishing out two assists.

Perrin Buford came out with a vengeance in the second half, getting two three-point-plays to create some momentum for MTSU, but two missed put-back dunks deflated MTSU for a stretch.

Buford finished with nine points on 3-for-13 shooting and six rebounds.

“I feel like I bring leadership [to the table], and I just try to be that floor general and that vocal leader on the floor and off the floor,” Buford said.

“But tonight it was the other way around. I struggled from the field, but yet, guys like Reggie [Upshaw] and Giddy [Potts] continued to tell me to continue to attack the basket because we’re going to need you down the stretch.”

“As far as this feeling, its unreal. As a child, you dream of going Division I and playing in the big games, and that’s what me my teammates are about to do,” Buford said.

Giddy Potts electrified the crowd mid-way through the second half with his momentum-swinging three-pointers.

Potts made a splash for the Blue Raiders before fouling out, scoring 14 points on 4-for-5 shooting from beyond the arc, while grabbing four rebounds.

“Giddy had a rough go. He didn’t do anything for about 12 days with a concussion. He really responded, but it took him a little while in that first game with Charlotte,” Davis said.

“But his defensive physicalness, tonight he fought foul trouble but played really well with fouls. He gives us a toughness and he’s one of the best rebounding guards out there.”

Upshaw iced the game in the closing seconds, sinking two free throws with 2.9 seconds remaining to give MTSU the 55-53 victory and automatic NCAA tournament berth.

“As far as what was going through my mind, it was just that I had to make those two free throws to help my teammates,” Upshaw said. “When coach called the play, I knew I had to get to the rim or get fouled; I got fouled. In the the timeout, everyone was telling me that I had the free throws and they were confident in me.”

Upshaw was named MVP of the C-USA Tournament following the title-game victory.

The Blue Raiders await Selection Sunday to see their seeding for the NCAA Tournament, their first appearance since 2013 when they took on St. Mary’s.

Current bracketology from Joe Lunardi has MTSU as a No. 14 seed, playing against No. 3 seed Xavier in the South region.

Follow Caleb Luketic on Twitter for more MTSU basketball coverage.

For more sports features, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_Sport.

To contact Sports Editor Connor Grott, email sports@mtsusidelines.com or follow him on Twitter at @Connor_Grott.

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