Men’s basketball: Blue Raiders defeat Vanderbilt in a 66-63 classic at Memorial Gym


King finished the game with 23 points and six rebounds against the Vanderbilt Commodores on Dec. 6, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (Devin P. Grimes / MTSU Sidelines)

Photo by Devin P. Grimes / MTSU Sidelines

The Middle Tennessee Blue Raider basketball team (6-1) pulled off a hard-earned victory against the Vanderbilt Commodores (3-6) on Wednesday night. It was a back-and-forth affair in Nashville, as the game saw six ties and nine lead changes.

Nick King led the Blue Raiders in points with 23 on the night, and seniors Giddy Potts and Brandon Walters both chipped in with 16 points.

MTSU got off to a hot start, taking their biggest lead of the game at 15-8 six minutes into the game. Trailing early, the Vanderbilt defense buckled down and held the Blue Raiders without a point for over five minutes.

The Commodores embarked on a 10-0 run that saw the lead transfer over to them by a score of 18-15 with a little under nine minutes left in the half.

Vandy carried that lead all the way to halftime, and they took a 32-28 advantage into the locker room. Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis seemingly could not miss in the first half, as he shot a perfect 3-3 from beyond the arc to give him 11 points and seven rebounds.

The Blue Raiders were ice cold in the first half, shooting only 36.4 percent from the field and 50 percent from the free throw line. MTSU was also held without a three-point bucket, as they misfired on all six of their attempts in the opening stanza.

Middle Tennessee’s cold shooting performance continued in the second half, and Vanderbilt maintained the lead all the way until the 13:26 mark when King made a layup to give MTSU a brief advantage.

On the following possession, Fisher-Davis knocked down his fourth three-pointer of the night to take the lead right back.

With five minutes remaining in the game, the Blue Raiders found their momentum and their three-point touch. Potts made the team’s first shot from beyond the arc all night after 11 attempts. The shot tied the game at 53 and the Blue Raiders eventually grabbed the lead back at 55-53 after a pair of King free throws.

The lead did not last long, as the Commodores answered right back with a Jeff Roberson three-point jumper that gave Vanderbilt a 56-55 lead. Following the three, Ed Simpson found the bottom of the net from three-point range to regain the lead for MT by a score of 58-56 with under four minutes to play.

Potts threw a lob to Walters for a thundering slam dunk, and then made two free throws to give the Blue Raiders their biggest lead of the half at 62-56 with a little under three minutes on the clock.

Vanderbilt came back one final time to make the game close, as guard Payton Willis went on a personal 4-0 run to pull the Commodores within three points. On the following possession, the Blue Raiders benefited from their most timely bucket of the night. Potts nailed a step-back, three-point jumper as the shot clock expired to give MT a 65-60 lead with just over a minute to play in the game.

Potts went on to split a pair of free throws to give the Blue Raiders a six-point advantage. The Commodores wasted no time as Riley LaChance got fouled by David Simmons in the act of shooting a three-pointer.

LaChance made all three free throws to put them back within three points with only 39 seconds left. Potts proceeded to miss a jumper and with 12 seconds to go, Vanderbilt had the ball and a shot to take the game to overtime.

LaChance caught the ball once again on the left wing with three seconds left, and pump-faked Simpson to give him an open look at the rim. He missed the open three-point jumper as time expired however, and MT escaped Memorial Gym with an exciting victory by a final score of 66-63.

Perimeter shooting haunts Blue Raiders until the end

MT started off slow from beyond the arc in the game, missing their first 11 three-point attempts. The Blue Raiders couldn’t buy a bucket for multiple stretches of the first half when they went on two separate scoring droughts of at least four minutes.

The shooting from the free throw line was also underwhelming. In the first half, MT only shot 50 percent on 4-8 shooting from the charity stripe.

Despite the poor shooting performance through the first 35 minutes of the game, the Blue Raiders ultimately found their stroke as Potts made two three-pointers and Simpson made one when it mattered most. Overall, they still only shot 21.4 percent from deep on 3-14 shooting, but made big-time shots in the end.

“Giddy hasn’t gotten off to a great shooting start like he has the last three years,” said head coach Kermit Davis. “He had some really good looks in the first half and so did Ed … but Ed made a big three on a great pass and then Giddy made one at the end of the shot clock. That’s just the luck of college basketball sometimes and it went our way tonight.”

King and Walters dominate the front-court

The big difference that ultimately determined the outcome of the game was the play of MT’s front-court duo of King and Walters. King dominated in the scoring department, scoring a game-high 23 points to go along with six rebounds.

Walters made his impact known throughout the night, despite battling foul trouble. The senior put up 16 points on 7-10 shooting and grabbed five rebounds.

“I stayed aggressive on both ends,” King said. “I got off to a slow start on the defensive end, but coach got into me mentally and told me to lock in on the defensive end. Defense always turns into offense.”

The chemistry between Walters and King was on full display Wednesday night as well.

“It’s great playing with (King) because he’s a big (man), but he’s a pick and pop big (man). He’s just so versatile,” Walters said. “His game is inside-out so if he goes inside, then I can pop out which gives him a chance to go one-on-one.”

King added that Walters’ versatile style of play benefits him as well.

“When he has someone sealed in the paint, you could throw him a bad pass and you know he is going to catch it,” King said. “He also clears out a lot of room in the paint to make way for offensive rebounds for me and him.”

Blue Raiders win despite injury plagued front-court

Middle Tennessee is still feeling the effects of a couple of injuries suffered by two key front-court players in Tyrik Dixon and Antwain Johnson. Johnson rolled his ankle in practice last week and was forced to miss the last two games. Dixon injured his knee in practice on Monday and was a game-time decision to play.

Dixon still played against Vanderbilt, but did not start and played only six minutes in a very limited role as he was still feeling the affects of that knee injury.

“Tyrik tried for a couple of minutes, but couldn’t go on further,” Davis said.

Simmons filled in for Dixon in the starting lineup and scored four points to go along with five rebounds and two assists.

Davis was complimentary of Simmons performance after the game.

“David has been great in all of our road wins,” Davis said. “He’s got great toughness. He’s not a great three-point shooter, but he can drive the ball and guard four positions.”

What’s next?

The Blue Raider basketball team will be back in action on Saturday night at the Murphy Center to take on another SEC foe, the Ole Miss Rebels at 5 p.m. This will be the second of a three-game SEC stretch, as they will also battle the Auburn Tigers the following Saturday.

Follow MTSU Sports Reporter Elijah Campbell on Twitter at @E_Campbell3.

To contact Sports Editor Rusty Ellis, email sports@mtsusidelines.com.

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

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