Photo by Tyler Lamb / Sports Editor
Middle Tennessee (14-3, 5-0 C-USA) jumped out early and never looked back Saturday night against Western Kentucky (9-9, 3-2 C-USA) in the 133rd matchup of the 100 Miles of Hate Rivalry. The Blue Raiders won 91-76, claiming their 10th win out of the last 12 outings with the Hilltoppers.
The Toppers were able to get out to a slight 4-0 lead, but that was all MTSU would give them. The Blue Raiders would storm back and go on an 11-2 run highlighted by a JaCorey Williams slam, a Reggie Upshaw alley-oop, and a Tyrik Dixon 3-pointer.
The run got the crowd of nearly 7,000 inside Murphy Center rocking until a technical foul on head coach Kermit Davis gave the Hilltoppers two free throws to cut the lead to five. Even then though, MTSU didn’t slow down their hot pace. The team once again began to suffocate WKU with their ever changing defensive schemes.
Following a WKU Pancake Thomas five-point swing, MTSU countered with an 11-0 run capped off with an Ed Simpson three to make it 26-11 with 11:58 in the half.
Already with 13 points, JaCorey Williams picked up his 2nd foul midway through the half, forcing him to sit. Davis turned to freshman Brandon Walters, a guy who over the last three games had averaged 10.6 minutes, but has also put in 8.3 points per game. The 6-foot-10 center immediately contributed with four quick points.
In the past few outings, Walters’ time on the floor has increased and his size is causing teams mismatches down low.
The two big men, including Upshaw destroyed WKU on the boards during the first 20 minutes of play as Middle Tennessee had 22 rebounds compared to the Toppers eight. With that, comes second chance points. MTSU also dominated in that category, cashing in 13 points to WKU’s two.
At halftime, MTSU lead 46-32.
WKU’s Que Johnson and Thomas came up big early in the final 20 minutes as they guided their team to cut the MTSU lead to nine with 13:45 left in the game.
From the point forward for the next few minutes, it was a back-and-forth battle. However, WKU could never slow down the likes of Upshaw and Williams.
Their performances, combined with Antwain Johnson’s seven second half points proved to be too much for the Toppers.
One of the biggest, if not the biggest spark from the Blue Raiders on Saturday came from starting point-guard Tyrik Dixon.
Dixon shot 6-of-7 from the floor and 5-of-5 from deep en route to a career-high 17-point night. His biggest contribution, however, were his career-high eight assists.
“We’ve just seen that progression for about the last 4-5 weeks,” said Davis who went on to mention that Dixon’s performances against Belmont and VCU were where he really came into his own.
“From there, he just gained confidence and just started to look for shots and opportunities,” said Davis. “He was 6-of-7, he shot really good shots tonight, he found the open floor. We were struggling a little big against that 1-3-1 and he got in the seams and made some really nice plays.”
Williams finished with 27 points and six rebounds while Upshaw left with 19, grabbing nine boards and racking up three assists.
The Blue Raiders shot 62.1 percent from the floor (36-58) and 47.4 (9-19) even though Giddy Potts accounted for just two points all night due to staying in foul trouble.
“With Giddy’s foul trouble, we went to a bigger lineup and played Reggie at the 3 (small forward). That’s our best offensive rebounding team and I thought that’s when we really really went to the boards.”
The Blue Raiders beat WKU in the rebounding edge 33-19 with Upshaw and Walters leading the charge with nine and eight boards, respectively. Of those 33 rebounds, 15 were offensive that lead to 18 total second chance points.
After the game, WKU head coach Rick Stansbury admitted MTSU is just on another level of competitiveness.
“That’s the first time I’d seen [MTSU] in person. There’s no question they are the best team in this league,” said Stansbury. “They’re well coached, they play hard, they have good pieces. You can tell they are a veteran basketball team because they don’t make too many mistakes.”
The Hilltoppers returned two starters and just three letterwinners from their 2015-2016 season that went to the to C-USA Tournament Semifinals due to a major offseason disciplinary incident.
Newcomers Que Johnson and Justin Johnson, along with Pancake Thomas have been forces all season and showed their skills tonight as they combined for 53 of the Hilltoppers 76 total points.
The Blue Raiders get a few days of rest before heading to the Sunshine State for a three-day stint with Florida International and Florida Atlantic University. MTSU’s first game will be against FIU on Thursday with tip-off slated for 6 p.m. CST.
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