|It was a successful first day of Conference USA Tournament title defense for Middle Tennessee on Thursday, as the Blue Raiders cruised by UTSA 86-70 at Birmingham’s Legacy Arena.
The C-USA regular-season champion Raiders (28-4), who were ranked No. 25 in the latest USA Today Coaches Poll for the first time in school history, pushed their winning streak to four in the league tournament. They are now 3-1 all-time against the Roadrunners (14-19) after winning both meetings this season.
“We got exactly what we thought we’d get out of Steve [Henson’s] team,” MT head coach Kermit Davis said. “It was a good first win, and we’re excited to move on.”
The game was close to start out. UTSA held an 8-7 lead four minutes in, but from there the Blue Raiders took control.
An Edward Simpson jumper ignited a 34-16 run over 14 minutes of gameplay in which MT shot 14 for 18, including nine makes in a row from the field.
The hot start offensively was a nice sight for Davis, as his team had issues getting out of the gates against Florida Atlantic and FIU to end the regular season.
“We’ve struggled a bit offensively, to say the least,” the head coach said. “When we can get a couple of other guys to make some perimeter shots, everything widens out and it makes us a much different team.
“I just thought we settled in, shared the ball and just ran such good offense. The offense kind of carried us tonight.”
It was senior Reggie Upshaw and Simpson that sparked the Blue Raiders’ offense in the first half.
Upshaw had 11 of his game-high 21 points before the break, finishing 9 for 14 from the field, while Simpson added eight in the first half and 11 for the game, shooting 4 for 6 and 3 for 5 from 3-point distance.
Simpson’s good offensive outing was a pleasant sight for his coach and teammates. The junior went into the game in a 3-for-22 shooting slump over the last 11 games.
“We keep telling him to shoot the ball,” Upshaw said. “We just try to stay in his ear and try to give him confidence, and it showed today.”
When the second half started, it was Birmingham native JaCorey Williams and senior Xavier Habersham who took over for MT.
Williams, the conference Player and Newcomer of the Year, poured in 10 of his 14 points after halftime and also added nine rebounds. Habersham scored all 10 of his points in the second half, shooting 4 for 6.
“We have a lot of guys who can play basketball, and when everyone is right I think we’re a dangerous team because we’re so deep,” Williams said. “Today I think you guys saw a great example of that.”
The offensive side wasn’t the only strong suit for Middle Tennessee on the afternoon. Defensively, the Raiders limited C-USA’s worst shooting team (39.4 percent on the season) to just a 36.2-percent clip (21 for 58) and forced 13 turnovers, scoring 24 points off of them.
“Probably every time before a game we talk about points off turnovers,” Davis said. “We’re good in the open floor … when we’re in transition off of turnovers, that’s when we’re at our best.”
Junior Giddy Potts rounded out the double-figure scoring for MT with 14, while Brandon Walters and Antwain Johnson added six apiece. Freshman Tyrik Dixon didn’t score, but he accounted for seven assists.
Middle Tennessee advances to the semifinals, where it will take on the winner of fourth-seeded UTEP and fifth-seeded Rice Friday at 11:30 a.m.
Both teams proved troublesome for the Blue Raiders in the regular season. MT beat Rice 80-77 on the road on Jan. 5 and then lost to UTEP 57-54 on Feb. 4, its only C-USA loss.