Photo by Sarah Grace Taylor // Managing Editor
Middle Tennessee jumped out to an early 15-2 lead over a favorite to win the National Championship, Michigan State. The Blue Raiders were able to maintain the lead the entire game, upsetting No. 2 Michigan State 90-81, becoming the eighth No. 15 seed to ever knock off a No. 2 seed.
“It was a spectacular day for Middle Tennessee State University and the fans and our players,” head coach Kermit Davis said. “… Our guys just answered every run. The way we distributed the ball and these guys right here were fantastic. So just to tell you all, it was a great day.”
The Blue Raiders started 6-for-6 from the field, leading by as many as 13 against the heavily favored Spartans in the first half.
“Just to jump out like that, it was huge for our team. Anytime that you can kind of jump out on a team that’s known for defense like we did, it just gives the whole team a boost of momentum,” Reggie Upshaw said.
Upshaw was locked in, shooting 4-for-8 from the field in the first half. Upshaw’s back-to-back first half three-pointers swung the momentum back into MTSU’s favor, allowing them to take a 41-35 lead at the half.
“It’s probably one of the best moments I’ve been able to share with my dad and my brother going through my athletic career,” Upshaw said. “… And I could tell once we started playing, once we jumped out, and after we actually won, I could just tell that they were all proud of what I’ve accomplished…”
Upshaw finished the game with 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting from the field, while grabbing four rebounds and dishing out four assists.
Denzel Valentine showed his court vision all game long, finding his teammates for wide-open alley-oops and lay-ups. Valentine finished the day with just 13 points on 5-for-13 shooting, while grabbing six rebounds and dishing out 12 assists.
Valentine was able to exploit weak help-side defense by finding his wide-open teammates in the paint for easy buckets in the first half, but MTSU executed their help-side defense better in the second half.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” Valentine said. “And I didn’t handle it today. Just sucks that we’re going home now.”
“But I got something that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life; that when you’re in this position and everybody’s looking at you, you’ve got to come through. I didn’t come through today and I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”
JaQawn Raymond’s stellar defensive play neutralized Valentine’s scoring ability throughout much of the game and gave the Blue Raiders the opportunity to slay a giant.
“So I think it was with three minutes left in the game, it was a huge possession,” Perrin Buford said. “We were up three and we came up with a huge rebound. We went down and ran some good offense, and I was like, okay, we really got this.”
The Spartans, however, would not go away easily. The Spartans hit seven straight shots mid-way through the second half, drawing within one point, but the Blue Raiders were able to answer with a Darnell Harris old-fashioned three-point-play.
“[Davis] just told me to keep playing, my teammates believe in me, my coaches believe in me,” Harris said. “And he told me I have to play big for us to get this win tonight. I just came out confident, guarding and rebounding, and I made shots that came with it.”
Harris finished the game with 15 points on 3-for-5 shooting from beyond the arc.
The Blue Raiders answered everything the Spartans threw at them and didn’t allow them to break through. The Blue Raiders got the majority of 50/50 balls the latter part of the second half, which allowed them to maintain the lead and the momentum.
“But I’ll be honest with you, in my wildest dreams I didn’t think they’d hit some of the shots they hit,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said.
“They started making threes fall down from 30, and they outplayed us. I mean, there’s no way I can put it any differently. They deserved to win. They were very well coached. They ran good stuff. We just really struggled to guard the smaller guys on the perimeter and struggled to find lineups.”
The Blue Raiders are just the eighth team in NCAA Tournament history to upset a No. 2 seed in the first round. They advance to the round of 32 against Syracuse on Sunday, time is still to be determined.
Follow Caleb Luketic on Twitter for more MTSU basketball coverage.
To contact Sports Editor Connor Grott, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Connor_Grott.