|A valiant comeback was needed Thursday for Middle Tennessee to beat FIU 70-67.
“I just give [FIU head coach] Anthony [Evans], his staff and FIU credit,” MT head coach Kermit Davis said. “We were lucky to win, but we sure are thankful for a win, because every win in March is a great win. I’m proud of our guys for what they did in the comeback.”
Nothing went well for the Blue Raiders (26-4, 16-1) to start the game. The Panthers (6-24, 2-15) jumped to a 20-1 lead seven minutes in and effectively took the air out of the crowd.
Middle Tennessee found itself on both ends of the floor and used two electrifying runs that got the crowd re-energized, and that energy seemed to guide the Blue Raiders over a tight last few minutes.
“The crowd was great in our comeback,” Davis said. “The gym was a little quiet to start the game, but I would have been too. They were a big part of our win, there’s no question about it.”
MT had issues on both ends of the floor in the opening minutes.
The Blue Raiders turned the ball over six times and missed their first six shots from the field, all in the first seven minutes, and they allowed FIU to hit eight of its first 10 shots.
The Conference USA regular-season champions showed some heart, though, and after trailing 28-11 at the 7:30 mark they rattled off a 17-5 run and went into the break trailing 38-30.
“They made a lot of shots early, but once we kind of settled in and withstood the run they made the game kind of took a turn,” senior Reggie Upshaw said. “We were able to kind of do what we do and impose our will.”
All of the momentum Middle Tennessee gained at the end of the first half seemed to carry into the second. It started on an 18-6 run and nabbed its first lead of the game on a JaCorey Williams jumper at the 12:20mark.
Williams was the catalyst behind the hot second-half start. He scored eight points over the run and finished with a team-high 23 while shooting 8 for 14.
“We started trying to defend a little bit,” Williams said. “Early on we were just chasing them, and they were getting whatever they wanted on offense. We didn’t have any presence on defense.”
Once the Blue Raiders grabbed the lead they never relinquished it, but the stubborn Panthers didn’t make things easy.
Middle Tennessee held just a 65-63 lead with 18.8 seconds left, but a pair of free throws from Upshaw and three more from Williams over the closing seconds closed it out.
The combination of Upshaw, Williams and Giddy Potts guided the Blue Raiders offensively in the second half. The three tallied 30 of the team’s 40 points after halftime and their last 14 of the game.
“We probably haven’t been through that stage this season, but JaCorey and Reggie just told the team we have to settle in and do our job,” Potts said. “We just focused on defending the ball and got some stops.”
Potts finished with 15 points and five rebounds, while Upshaw added 11 points and eight boards. Freshman Tyrik Dixon and junior Brandon Walters had eight points apiece.
The regular season comes to a close for Middle Tennessee on Saturday when FAU travels to the Murphy Center on senior day. The game is set for a 5 p.m. tipoff and can be seen on ESPN3.
“We’re just trying to take it one game at a time,” Williams said. “We just have focus on the next game, watch film and get back to practice tomorrow and get better.”