Photo by Devin P. Grimes / MTSU Sidelines
The Blue Raiders (7-2) suffered a tough loss at the hands of the Auburn Tigers (9-1) at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama, on Saturday night by a score of 76-70.
MTSU was led by senior guard Giddy Potts, who scored a game-high 19 points on 4-9 shooting from the field, 2-4 from behind the arc and a perfect 9-9 from the free throw line.
Auburn benefited from a balanced offensive attack, as Jared Harper and Mustapha Heron both scored a team-high 16 points. Horace Spencer (11 points) and Chuma Okeke (14 points) came off the bench to round out Auburn’s double-digit scorers.
MT came out flat to start the game, and Auburn jumped out to a 22-9 lead after the first 10 minutes of action and forced 10 MT turnovers during that span.
“The start had a lot to do with Auburn,” said head coach Kermit Davis. “They had more energy than we did. Nick King didn’t trust the offense and was trying to score on one pass. Their athletes were better than him today.”
The first half did not get much better for the Blue Raiders, as the Tiger defense forced 16 turnovers. MTSU didn’t run their offense very well when they didn’t turn it over, and they only recorded six assists.
“We lost our way tonight,” said senior guard Ed Simpson. “We didn’t execute like we wanted to and defensively, the biggest thing was the rebounding. They really out-toughed us in that category.”
Auburn took a 42-25 lead to the locker room at halftime, benefiting from a hot shooting start. They connected on five of their 14 three-pointers.
The beginning of the second half mirrored the first, as the Tigers forced a turnover on MT’s first possession. The theme of Auburn forcing turnovers and causing chaos only continued in the second half, and the Tigers went on an 11-3 run to take their largest lead of the game at 53-28 with 16:02 left in the game.
Momentum seemed to go the Blue Raiders’ way after Auburn’s Malik Dunbar got ejected. He was assessed two technical fouls with 13:32 following a regular defensive foul that he committed. Potts proceeded to sink all three technical foul free throws to pull MT within 18 points.
The Blue Raiders eventually cut the lead back down to single digits after an old-fashioned three-point play by King made the score 61-53. Both teams exchanged buckets until the two-minute mark, where MT stormed back with a flurry of three-point baskets.
A Karl Gamble three-point bucket cut the Tiger lead to eight with 1:34 remaining. Spencer made a pair of free throws before MT found the bottom of the net from beyond the arc, as King connected on a corner three to trim the Blue Raider deficit to six points.
The Blue Raider comeback attempt found itself within five of Auburn after Antwain Johnson made his third consecutive three-pointer to bring the tally to 75-70 with 17 seconds left. The attempt fell just short, and the Tigers walked away with a 76-70 victory.
Turnovers haunt Blue Raiders
Middle Tennessee committed 24 turnovers on the night while only tallying 13 assists. Auburn’s on-ball defensive pressure seemed to get the MT guards out of the flow of the game, causing the offense to never establish a consistent rhythm throughout.
“This one is on us,” Simpson said. “We got ahead of ourselves and didn’t move the ball like we wanted to, which put us in a position to turn the ball over.”
Davis was not pleased with the point guard play and the way his team moved the ball in the first half.
“Tyrik Dixon did a poor job running our team today,” Davis said. “He was fragmented offensively … Auburn just popped us in that first 20 minutes.”
Foul trouble takes MTSU starters out of the flow of the game
The Blue Raiders suffered from becoming overzealous on defense and committing too many personal fouls.
Four starters fouled out of Saturday night’s game -Potts, Simpson, Dixon and Brandon Walters-and Davis was forced to dig deeper into his reserve unit to find production.
Despite the foul trouble, Davis learned more about his team and more specifically, he learned more about reserve Therren Shelton-Szmidt. Due to the foul trouble, Shelton-Szmidt was forced to play 13 minutes which is the second most he has logged in a game this season.
“I thought those guys did fine,” Davis said, “Therren (Shelton-Szmidt) started to guard a little better. I thought he did some good things.”
MT shows grit after furious comeback attempt
The Blue Raiders outscored Auburn in the second half by a score of 45-34, but it was not enough to complete the comeback.
The deficit that they faced forced them to rely more on the three-point shot than usual, and the Blue Raiders enjoyed one of their better shooting nights of the season. They shot 50 percent from beyond the arc (11-22).
Simpson scored a season-high nine points on 3-4 shooting from three-point range. Johnson connected on three long-range shots in a 23 second-span in the game’s final minute.
King and Potts both shot 2-4 from distance. Gamble also made his first three-pointer of the season and the second of his career.
The Blue Raiders will head out west over the holiday break, as they travel to Hawaii to compete in the Diamond Head Classic. In the first round of the Holiday tournament, the Blue Raiders will take on the defending Ivy League champions in the Princeton Tigers on Thursday. The USC Trojans, the Miami Hurricanes and the Akron Zips will also headline the tournament.
Follow MTSU Sports Reporter Elijah Campbell on Twitter at @E_Campbell3.
To contact Sports Editor Rusty Ellis, email firstname.lastname@example.org.