MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Middle Tennessee flexed a bit of muscle Saturday afternoon, flying past Western Kentucky 72-53 in front of 10,105 fans at the Murphy Center.
The Blue Raiders (18-4, 10-1 Sun Belt Conference) went on a 23-6 run in a 10-minute span of the second half to prove why they’re the best team in a league once annually controlled by the Hilltoppers (11-1, 5-6 SBC).
“We know their coach (Ray Harper) made some remarks last season in March that we kind of hung our hats on and still remember what he said when we went to the NIT,” MTSU guard Bruce Massey said. “We know we’ve got to play another game, so we’re not going to say nothing too crazy. The next game at Western will be a really tough game.”
That game is March 2. This game was all MTSU in the final 15 minutes.
The Tops hung around as long as they could despite 18 turnovers to four total assists.
Sophomore T.J. Price and junior Brandon Harris, WKU’s starting backcourt, combined to go 3 of 15 from the floor, score eight points, grab six rebounds, dish two assists and turn it over five times.
Western Kentucky has now lost six of seven and nine of 12. The Hilltoppers are 3-13 on the road under Harper and have lost six straight away from home for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.
“We can’t turn the ball over 18 times and beat a team like that,” Harper said. “It just can’t happen.”
The Hilltoppers trailed by six with 14:01 to play. Middle Tennessee didn’t buckle under the threatening pressure, instead putting its foot down and exploding to go on the decisive run and lead by as many as 23 at one point.
“When they hit us with that run in the second half, we just didn’t respond,” Harper said. “I talked to them during one of the timeouts, ‘You have that look. You’re playing an awfully good basketball team and you better respond right now.’
“Give (MTSU) the credit, they good.”
The Raiders shot 48 percent, had three players in double figures and four players with at least four rebounds.
“We took a timeout and we just talked during the timeout, ‘We’ve got to keep pushing, don’t let up,’ ” Massey said. “We’ve been a bad second-half team to start the second half off all season. We wanted to come out the first five, first 10 minutes of the half and make a push.”
Middle Tennessee also made a strong push to start the game.
The Raiders went on an 8-0 run thanks to four WKU turnovers in the first four WKU offensive possessions. Kerry Hammonds knocked down two 3s in the spurt from the same spot out of the left corner.
Kevin Kaspar put the Hilltoppers on the board at the 16:08 mark with a fade-away jumper from the left elbow, making it 8-2.
Raymond Cintron buried another triple to make it 13-4, and Neiko Hunter’s bucket out of an inbound play from under the basket made it 15-4.
Western Kentucky outscored Middle Tennessee 19-15 from there to go into the half down 30-23.
George Fant’s three-point play cut it to 22-12, and Kaspar’s bucket from the left side brought it within 24-18.
Stephon Drane came off the bench for an offensive putback with a minute to go, making it 28-23. Cintron’s layup with 15 seconds to play provided the final halftime margin.
The Hilltoppers went 11 of 18 from the free-throw line in the first half – their misses equaling the difference in the score in the first 20 minutes.
“In the first half we just got whipped on the boards,” MTSU coach Kermit Davis said. “They had us 18-12 and we outrebounded them 21-9 in the second half. That was the game. I thought they were more physical. We missed blockouts. We fouled carelessly – a lot of them on offensive rebounds. They rebounded, we’d foul them. In the second half we played more to our identity.”
Marcos Knight scored six early points in the second half to put MTSU up 38-27. The Tops rallied to within 42-36 on a Kaspar 3 from the left side – Western Kentucky’s first 3-pointer of the day.
It would be as close as WKU would get.
“Just got to keep our heads up, like coach said,” Kaspar said. “We got to come back on Monday and keep getting better. We have nine games left, that’s our goal right now, win nine of them and keep getting better each and every day.”
Kaspar was the only Topper to score in double figures with 14. Western Kentucky shot 17 of 27 from the line and 4 of 15 from the 3-point arc.
Knight scored 15, Hunter had 13 and Massey added 10.
The Hilltoppers return home Thursday to host Troy.