Photo by Tyler Lamb / Sports Editor
It was a fight to the end Saturday night, but the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (31-5) saw their season come to an end with a 74-65 loss to the Butler Bulldogs in round two of the NCAA tournament.
The Blue Raiders struggled at both ends for most of the first half, shooting only 40 percent from the floor. This included a 3-11 performance from three-point land.
While the offense struggled to find consistency, the defense was just as troubling. Butler made six of their nine three-point attempts and shot 50 percent from the floor overall. The biggest problems for MT were Kamar Baldwin and Kelan Martin, who combined for 23 of the Bulldogs on 5-6 shooting from three.
With the Blue Raiders facing a 13-point deficit, they turned to Conference USA Player of the Year JaCorey Williams and he soundly delivered. Williams went on an individual 6-0 run to help trim the lead down to seven. A Reggie Upshaw three cut the Bulldog lead to it’s halftime score of 37-31.
Williams led the Blue Raiders with 11 first-half points, while Upshaw added 10 of his own.
The Blue Raiders struggled once more to open the second half and the Bulldogs pushed the lead back up to 12 with 7:18 remaining in the game. Middle Tennessee turned once more to their bench, who’d been once of the most reliable in the country, to try to lead a comeback.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 19, 2017
Antwain Johnson and Brandon Walters led a 9-0 run between the two of them to cut the Butler lead down to three with 3:40 remaining in the game but it wouldn’t be enough and the Blue Raiders fell in fighting fashion by a final score of 74-65.
Giddy Potts held scoreless for the first time in two years
One of the team’s best scorers failed to crack the scoring column as junior guard Giddy Potts finished 0-8 from the floor and missed all three of his attempts from three-point range. This is the first time Potts has been held scoreless since his freshman season when he failed to score against UTEP in the Conference USA semifinals.
Potts was disappointed with his performance but his teammates know that he was one of the biggest reasons they were in the Round of 32 to begin with and they made sure he knew that after the game.
“Just keep your head up. He’s been one of our most consistent players over the course of his three years here,” senior forward Reggie Upshaw said about what he told Potts after the game. “He’ll go down as one of the greatest guards to ever play at Middle Tennessee and one of the greatest players to ever play.”
Johnson leads final charge
When MTSU needed a spark the most, they looked to their reserves who had been so reliable all season. The best contribution tonight came from Antwain Johnson, who scored a career-high 19 points and dished six assists. On a night where the Blue Raiders struggled shooting the ball, Johnson gave them an efficient option and finished his season by shooting 8-12 from the floor.
Even with his great play, Johnson believed he was just fulfilling his role to the team.
“I just really come into the game trying to play my role, give the team a spark off the bench,” Johnson said. “I came in and I was really just trying to win. It just went from there.”
With his team down and looking for some kind of answer, Johnson took it upon himself to will the team forward.
“When we had the last timeout before the spark, I knew that we had to do something right then and there,” Johnson said. “It just seemed like the lanes opened up and my shot [started falling]. I’ve got so much confidence in my shot and I just shot it, out of spite of just trying to win.”
MTSU struggles to get consistent stops
Outside of the run, MT had severe issues with the Bulldogs offense. In the first half, they couldn’t get Butler to miss a shot from three and the Bulldogs made six of their nine three-point attempts.
In the second half, Butler dominated the pain and Andrew Chrasbascz led the charge for the Bulldogs. The big man finished with 15 points on 6-12 shooting for a team that shot 51 percent from the floor for the whole game. Butler ended the game making eight of their 15 attempts from long-range.
While the bread and butter of the Blue Raiders this year has been their 1-3-1 zone, Butler found their way through it today and penetrated it for easy layups when the Blue Raiders simply couldn’t afford it.
Final MTSU stats
Final MTSU Stats pic.twitter.com/Lze7S5g0St
— Rusty Ellis (@RustyEllis13) March 19, 2017
With the season over, the Blue Raiders will return home to Murfreesboro and will likely take the next few weeks off before beginning the journey again for next season.