Photo by David Chamberlain / MTSU Sidelines
In front of a raucous Murphy Center crowd, the 24th-ranked Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (24-5, 16-1) accomplished something that they’ve been trying to do for years. With their 82-64 win over the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (22-8, 14-3), the Blue Raiders won the Conference USA regular season title and got to cut down the nets in front of 11, 307 people.
“It’s something I’ve never done in my life,” said senior guard Giddy Potts about celebrating in Murphy Center. “To cut the nets down at home, feels great. To do it with my brothers and coach … it’s wonderful.”
With CBS Sports Network, an energetic crowd and their arch rival in the house, the Blue Raiders took initiative early. Right from the opening tip, freshman Donovan Sims set the tone as he sliced into the lane and threaded the needle on a bounce pass to Brandon Walters for a two-handed slam dunk.
Following a five-point scoring run from Antwain Johnson, Western Kentucky finally got themselves on the board when freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth connected on a jumper from the free throw line.
The Hilltoppers reinserted themselves back into contention when Murfreesboro native and Virginia transfer Darius Thompson connected on back-to-back three-pointers to give WKU their first lead of the night at 17-16.
Western Kentucky kept the lead with nine minutes left in the opening act when they held a 24-22 lead. For the Hilltoppers however, that lead didn’t last much longer. The Blue Raiders embarked on a 12-6 run, capped off by a thundering slam dunk from Nick King off of a high-arcing lob from Sims.
The Blue Raiders took a nine-point lead to the locker room after Johnson banked a three-pointer at the buzzer to give MT a 43-34 lead.
The momentum gained by MT at the end of the half was enough to fuel a second half run in which the Blue Raiders never trailed.
Not only did they never trail, WKU never got closer than nine points of the lead.
MT outscored the Hilltoppers 39-30 in the second half and dominated throughout. The lead stretched to as much as 23 when Therren Shelton-Szmidt buried a three-pointer with 54 seconds remaining to go up 82-59.
By the time the final horn sounded, the Blue Raiders found themselves with an 82-64 win and their second consecutive Conference USA regular season title.
Sims shows maturity, efficiency in his second career start
After making his first career start against UAB last Saturday, Head Coach Kermit Davis inserted Sims back into the starting lineup. Despite the pressure of playing against a rival on national television, Sims played his best game as a Blue Raider.
“When (Tyrik Dixon) went down with a concussion, we started Donovan in the second half and the ball just moved so well,” Davis said. “He’s such a willing passer. He made some tremendous assists … He’s not afraid of the moment so he’s not playing like a freshman.”
Sims squared off against another Blackman graduate in Western Kentucky’s Thompson and went toe-to-toe in the individual matchup. Sims finished with six points and six assists (more than the entire WKU team combined), along with four steals.
Thompson scored seven points on 2-6 shooting, recording only one assist and one rebound.
Despite being on opposite sides of the court, the two share a bond from the past that neither will forget.
“It was pretty cool … he was actually my sister’s boyfriend,” Sims said. “I used to model my game after him, so all I know came from him. He really taught me a lot.”
Blue Raiders depth, electric crowd carries them over the top
Four Blue Raiders scored in double figures on Thursday night. Three of the scorers (Walters, King and Johnson) tallied at least 17 points on the night.
While King has had many elite scoring and rebounding nights, Walters stepped up to the plate against Western Kentucky by scoring 18 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.
“Brandon Walters is playing like an elite center in college basketball,” Davis said. “When Brandon plays like that, we can play with a lot of people in college basketball.”
Not only did the Blue Raiders light up the scoreboard, but they locked down on defense with three blocks from Walters and four steals from Sims.
The crowd was also the ninth-largest crowd in Murphy Center history, and it was one of the loudest game environments in recent memory.
“I really appreciate the crowd tonight,” Davis said. “It was really electric.”
Win clinches another C-USA regular season title
The win on Thursday night not only completed the regular season sweep of the “100 Miles of Hate” rivalry, but it clinched another regular season C-USA championship for the Davis and the Blue Raiders.
“To cut the nets down in front of your home crowd of over 11,000 is a great feeling,” Davis said.
The Blue Raiders weren’t able to celebrate last season when they won since they were on the road. This team has proven to be just as good, if not better than last year’s squad.
MTSU will play at the Glass House for one final time this season, as they look to avenge their lone regular season conference loss against Marshall at 7 p.m.
King, Walters, Potts and Ed Simpson will be playing their final games in the Murphy Center as they will be honored on Senior Night.
Follow MTSU Sports Reporter Elijah Campbell on Twitter at @E_Campbell3.
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