Photo by Joi Williams / MTSU Sidelines
After losing to the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles in the Conference USA Tournament and failing to earn an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (25-7) opened up play in the National Invitation Tournament with a dominant 91-64 win over the Vermont Catamounts (27-8). The win was a milestone, as it was the 100th win for seniors Giddy Potts and Ed Simpson, a record for Middle Tennessee.
The Blue Raiders opened the game with much better ball movement compared to the Southern Miss game. MTSU scored the first five points of the game, and held a 12-5 lead with 5:29 left in the first quarter. During that stretch, Potts and fellow senior Nick King each knocked down a three to get the crowd rocking.
The Catamounts were not to be outdone however, as they used excellent ball movement of their own to end the quarter on a 6-0 run to take a 21-16 lead into the second frame.
This is where Potts took over, as he knocked down three more threes and scored 11 of his 16 points to lead the Blue Raiders to their largest lead of the first half at 41-31. Anthony Lamb kept the visitors in the game however, as his 14 first-half points managed to prevent Middle Tennessee from enlarging the lead much further.
American East Player of the Year Award winner Trae Bell-Haynes was a great distributor in the first half, dishing out five assists. He also accrued five turnovers though, and he only managed two points against the MTSU defense.
When the halftime buzzer sounded, the Blue Raiders strolled into the locker room with a 41-33 lead. Junior Antwain Johnson added 10 points of his own to Potts’ team-leading 16 to help the home team.
The third quarter is where the game really unravelled for the Catamounts. Middle Tennessee used an 18-0 run to give the Blue Raiders a 69-37 lead with 2:56 to go in the period. Freshman Donovan Sims used two circus lay-ups to help amp up the crowd and his five assists led to beautiful ball movement on the offensive end.
In the fourth quarter, Vermont cut the lead down to 21, but got no closer. When all was said and done, Chase Miller‘s second three of the season propelled the game to it’s final score at 91-64 in favor of Middle Tennessee.
Ball movement on offense leads to balanced explosion in the box score
Against the Golden Eagles, Middle Tennessee looked relatively stagnant on the offensive end of the floor. That was not an issue on Tuesday night, as the Blue Raiders recorded 19 assists and shot 64.3 percent from the floor.
Potts was the star of the night, as he scored 25 points on 6-11 shooting from beyond the arc. King added a double-double, his 11th of the season, of 16 points and 11 rebounds, while senior Brandon Walters finished with 15. Johnson rounded out the quartet of Blue Raiders in double figures with 14 points.
The motivation to halt their two-game losing streak mixed with playing their game led to the Blue Raiders’ improved ball movement. If they continue playing at this level, they be primed for a big run in the NIT.
“We didn’t want to go out with three losses in a row,” King said. “We want to finish the season off as strong as we can … we want to do anything possible to make that happen.”
Sims continues excellent play as a freshman
The Murfreesboro native scored six points and collected a team-high five assists in the winning effort.
The excellent play on a big stage is nothing new for Sims, as he has played major minutes this season against quality opponents such as Western Kentucky and Vanderbilt. While he may only be an 18-year-old college freshman, his older teammates are more impressed than he is about his play this early in his career.
“There’s a lot you have to go through when you experience adversity as a young player,” King said. “He’s been very mature through the whole (season). He’s stepped up in big-time games … he doesn’t let it phase him and every time he steps on the court, he gives it his all.”
His head coach has been just as impressed with the way he facilitates the offense.
“The ball just flows out of his hand,” said Head Coach Kermit Davis. “He’s got great athleticism, and he can finish around the rim … he’s going to be a really special guy here, he just plays like a point guard.”
Blue Raiders use motivation from Selection Sunday to play better
While Middle Tennessee put together a great performance against Vermont, the win left one question in many mind: should this team have been in the NCAA Tournament?
The players didn’t let it bother them at all, as they used a dominant third quarter to run the score up to over 30 points and put the game away early. After the game, King believed that they used this performance to send a message for mid-major teams on the bubble.
“The whole nation knows how Selection Sunday went and how we felt about it,” King said. “We come out to make a statement every single game. We’ve got to (represent) for all the mid-majors out there. We just want to go out there and play our hardest to show that every team in the NCAA is equal.”
The Blue Raiders will travel to Louisville, Kentucky to take on the Louisville Cardinals in the Second Round of the NIT. The date and time of the game is yet to be announced, as there are more opening games to be played on Wednesday.
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