This time, Middle Tennessee proved its grit and gusto. The Blue Raiders stamped a memorable season by denying Western Kentucky another upset at E.A. Diddle Arena on Saturday.
Middle won 70-62 by scoring the final eight points of the night after WKU tied the game with 1:54 to play. The Hilltoppers (16-15, 10-10 Sun Belt Conference) wouldn’t score again, failing to emulate the 73-67 upset they came up with to end the 2011-12 season.
“I thought our guys were terrific,” WKU coach Ray Harper said. “I thought they competed. A break here or there and it’s a different outcome against a really good basketball team. It was a great game.
“You look at the stat sheet, they’re 18 for 19 from the free throw line – what veteran basketball teams do. They’ve got seven seniors and they played like it today.”
After Brandon Harris buried a 3 to tie the game at 62, turning a sellout crowd into a frenzy, MTSU (27-4, 19-1) scored eight in a row to escape with the win.
Shawn Jones’ leaping putback with 1:27 left broke the stalemate, then Neiko Hunter made an uncontested layup through a defensive breakdown to make it 66-62 with 38 seconds to go.
Hunter and Jones combined to sink four straight free throws and ice the game for the visitors.
“We had to play with some mental toughness at the end to win,” MTSU coach Kermit Davis said. “Just a really good college game and sometimes this league takes some knocks and this is a really good basketball league and people around the country got to watch that today.
“Two hard-playing college teams playing in a physical game and a really good atmosphere.”
With the loss, Western Kentucky fell to the sixth seed in this week’s conference tournament. There they’ll face Louisiana-Monroe at a time to be determined.
A win Saturday could have moved them as high as a four seed. Instead, Harper’s Hilltoppers will once again have to reel off four wins in four days to win the tournament.
“We won three out of the last four and the key was to go down there with momentum,” WKU senior point guard Jamal Crook said. “We fought hard tonight and we showed that we could beat the best team. It’s good to have momentum going down in the tournament. We can definitely go down there and make some noise.”
The Raiders extended their lead by nine early in the second half on J.T. Sulton’s three-point play in the lane that made it 42-33.
The Tops hung tough, cutting it to 42-39 on a Harris 3 out of the right corner and 44-42 when T.J. Price bombed a shot in from way out on the right side.
Western Kentucky finally tied the game at 46 with a pair of Crook free throws, then took its first lead since 9-8 with an Aleksejs Rostov putback at 48-46.
Rostov hit a pair of free throws to give WKU a 52-48 lead and consecutive two-handed dunks from George Fant later made it 57-54.
The Raiders responded with a 6-0 run starting with two Sulton free throws and followed by a Marcos Knight step-back, fadeaway jumper and a Tweety Knight layup that pushed it to 60-57.
Western Kentucky had one final gasp down 62-59 when Harris splashed a 3 out of the left corner. The Tops wouldn’t score again.
Price, Crook and then Price again all missed shots in the final stretch.
“They got the putback and then they got us scrambled a little bit on that possession,” Harper said. “Honestly I’d have to watch the tape. I’m not sure what happened. I know Marcos Knight drove it, guy wide open and a bucket and then we fouled.
“We did some really good things. Got some things that we can do better and we’ve got a week to try and continue to improve.”
Middle Tennessee seized control early, but only by a slim margin. Jones gave the Raiders a 15-10 and Sulton matched that advantage with a jumper from the left baseline at 17-12.
Kevin Kaspar brought it back with 17-15 by knocking down a 3 from the right corner and Caden Dickerson laid in an easy two off the assist from Rostov, but Sulton answered on the other end to make it 21-17.
Kerry Hammonds then buried consecutive 3s to make it 27-18, Middle’s largest lead of the first half.
George Fant completed a three-point play to cut it to 27-21 and then Price found O’Karo Akamune, who found Jamal Crook on the fast break to make it 27-23.
Price scored his first bucket of the game with a 3 after Kene Anyigbo kicked it out to him on the right wing at 29-26, but WKU failed to get back on transition defense and Massey went in for an easy layup to end the half at 31-26.
“This being my fourth time playing Western, I can see being here four years how important it is to the community and the fans and the players that have been here for four years,” Massey said. “JT and (James Gallman) have only lost one time playing them in four years playing them. Just practicing with them and them talking about it, you can feel how strong the rivalry was and how important this game was.”
Sulton scored 17 and eclipsed the 1,000-point mark for his career. Massey added 11 and Jones finished with 10.
Fant had 18 and six rebounds while Price had 14 and Crook added 10 and three assists.
Middle Tennessee opens the SBC Tournament with a first-round bye, then will play the winner of the 8-9 matchup Saturday night.