Photo by Tyler Lamb / MTSU Sidelines
The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (29-4) are moving on to the Conference USA Championship game on Saturday night after a dominant 82-56 victory over the UTEP Miners (15-17).
After giving up the first basket of the game, the Blue Raiders used a quick 7-0 run to take an early lead. UTEP cut the lead down to one before the MT defense held them scoreless for 3:20.
Middle Tennessee used that time to build their first double-digit lead of the day at 17-7. The Miners again would cut into lead, but the Blue Raiders kept their foot on the gas and used back-to-back threes from Antwain Johnson to head into halftime with a 37-23 lead.
Senior Reggie Upshaw led all Blue Raiders with eight points, while Johnson, JaCorey Williams, Giddy Potts and Xavier Habersham each added six points of their own.
The Miner defense struggled even more in the second half, as the Blue Raiders shot 46.7 percent from the floor. Middle Tennessee continued their balanced scoring attack as four players scored in double figures. In the end, no change the Miners made could make a big enough difference for them to overcome the Blue Raider lead and Middle Tennessee closed out the win by a final score of 82-56.
Blue Raiders defense continues their aggression on defense
After suffocating the UTSA offense on Thursday, the Blue Raiders continued to put more pressure on the Miner offense today. Middle Tennessee held the Miners without a basket for over three minutes in the first half, a stretch that allowed the Blue Raiders to build their lead to double figures.
One area that the Blue Raiders really found success in was creating turnovers. They forced 18 turnovers for the game and scored 25 points off those turnovers. This was something that Giddy Potts believes that was due to the energy of the Blue Raider reserves.
“The bench came in and set the tone defensively and [the starters] came off the bench and fed off their defense,” Potts said. “We came out in the second half with the same amount of energy.”
Antwain Johnson provides the spark off the bench
After a day that saw Ed Simpson step up, sophomore guard Antwain Johnson was the reserve who played great today. The transfer scored 11 points off the bench and hit two crucial three-pointers in the first half that allowed MTSU to push their lead to what it was at the break.
Head coach Kermit Davis emphasized Johnson’s play, knowing that it would be crucial in order to beat UTEP.
“You need other guys to shoot it….he’s a great shooter,” Davis said. “We want all our guys to be aggressive..it’s hard to play our team when you can spread [the ball].”
Middle Tennessee avenges lone conference loss to Miners
This was a highly-anticipated match-up, as UTEP was the only team to defeat the Blue Raiders during the regular season in conference play.
After a stunning 57-54 loss in a game they led by 17 points at a time, Middle Tennessee knew they had to bring their best energy of the season to beat the Miners.
“We just knew what they were capable of…when we built the lead today, we just kept telling each other to finish the game out,” Reggie Upshaw said. “[Don’t] look ahead to the championship game.”
Final MTSU Stats
Final MTSU stats: pic.twitter.com/1aUnymdPQv
— Rusty Ellis (@RustyEllis13) March 10, 2017
The Blue Raiders will go for their second straight conference championship when they take on the winner of the La Tech-Marshall game at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday night.