All hands on deck: Bench trio plays big for Blue Raiders

Photo by Tyler Lamb / Sports Editor

With the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (31-4) set to play the Butler Bulldogs on Saturday night, the team knows they will need all hands on deck in order to reach the Sweet 16.

While players like Reggie Upshaw, JaCorey Williams and Giddy Potts provide a consistent offensive threat, it was the contributions from Brandon Walters, Antwain Johnson and Aldonis Foote that propelled the Blue Raiders to victory over the Golden Gophers on Thursday.

Head coach Kermit Davis recognized that these players performed well and that it was crucial to his team winning the game.

“I thought if we had any kind of advantage, I thought [it was our] depth…I thought all ten guys made contributions,” Davis said. “I thought [Aldonis] Foote, Brandon Walters and Antwain Johnson were huge. [They] kind of settled us back in to get back in the flow of the game.”

MTSU center Brandon Walters dunks it in an NCAA Tournament first round game against Minnesota in Milwaukee, WI on March 16, 2017. (MTSU Sidelines/Tyler Lamb)

What makes these players so effective is the knowledge and execution of their roles on the team. When the team was struggling to get good looks in the paint, they turned to the 6-foot-10-inch Walters. He obliged, giving them 10 points and six rebounds off the bench. For him, it was all about just being the player he is and doing what he’s done all season.

“I’m a big body, I’m a physical guy so tonight that was going to come into play,” Walters said after the win. “I had to come out ready to play and physical, moving my feet like I always do.”

Foote has been the team’s primary energy guy all year. Just recently he showed more of his offensive talent in the Conference USA Tournament and that carried over into yesterday’s win over Minnesota. While he can score, his true calling card is as the lead of the team’s vaunted 1-3-1 zone defense, something that has caused so many issues for most of the teams the Blue Raiders have faced this year.

MTSU started out slow in their game Thursday, finding themselves down 7-0 before the first media timeout. When Foote was inserted, he saw that his team had to stay true to their game plan in order to win.

“[It’s] staying within the things we have to do to win the game,” Foote said in the locker room. “We know we’re a half-court team. We can run if we want to, but we’re mainly a half-court team.”

Antwain Johnson has provided the Blue Raiders with some offensive aggression all year off the bench. Whether he’s pulling up for three or driving down the lane for a dunk, he manages to bring a little more excitement to the game when he’s on the court.

While he may be known for his offense, Johnson also likes to be known as a lockdown defender on the other end.

“It all started on the defensive end. On offense, it just happens,” Johnson said. “I really pride myself on defense.”

The team’s slow start could’ve had devastating results, but they buckled down when it mattered and took care of business. This really speaks volumes for the team’s maturity just a year after the famous Michigan State game.

“We had to just settle in,” Johnson said. “We never panicked because we knew we would be fine.”

As they prepare for the short turnaround on Saturday, the plan going forward is pretty simple for some.

“Keep bringing energy to the team,” Foote said of his role. “Stay poised, don’t let them speed us up.”

The Raiders will meet the Bulldogs in the Round of 32 on Saturday night at 6:10 p.m. CT in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The game can also be viewed on TBS.

Follow MTSU Men’s Basketball beat writers Tyler Lamb (@Tlamb35) and Rusty Ellis (@RustyEllis13) on Twitter for more coverage.

For more sports stories, follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter and Periscope at @Sidelines_Sport.

To contact Sports Editor Tyler Lamb (@Tlamb35), email sports@mtsusidelines.com.

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