The NCAA Tournament Round of 32 matchup between Middle Tennessee and Butler was a dogfight. This time, it was the Bulldogs who came out victorious, 74-65.
The loss moves the 12th-seeded Blue Raiders (31-5) to 0-4 all-time in the Round of 32, while Butler advances to the Sweet 16 for the first time since advancing all the way to the title game in 2011.
“I can’t express, as I told our guys in the locker room, how much fun they brought the Middle Tennessee fans and myself personally, how they represented us,” MT head coach Kermit Davis said. “Thirty-one wins is an unbelievable feat. It was a terrific year for us.”
The Bulldogs tried to take over the game early in the second half, growing a five-point halftime lead to 10 with 12 minutes left, but sophomore Antwain Johnson wouldn’t let them get too far.
The 4.4-points-per-game scorer had a career day, scoring 19 on 8-of-12 shooting and dishing out six assists. Fourteen of his points came in the second half as he willed Middle Tennessee to stay in the game.
“It really wasn’t anything different,” Johnson said. “I was just trying to win.”
After Butler led by as many as 12 points with seven minutes left, the Blue Raiders made a final push.
They went on a 9-0 run to cut the deficit to 59-56 with 3:40 remaining, but ran out of steam.
The Bulldogs, who shoot 73.6 percent from the free-throw line as a team, made 6 of 8 free throws in the final two minutes and outscored MT 8-4 to hold on.
“Butler played terrific,” Davis said. “We were just kind of chasing them the whole game … they just kind of, tonight, beat us in some areas that we’ve won a lot of games with.”
The fight started from the opening tip. Neither team led by more than five through the first nine minutes until the Bulldogs found footing from beyond the 3-point arc.
They made six of their first seven attempts from distance, finishing 8 for 15, and built a 13-point lead with just over four minutes left in the first half.
Just when Middle Tennessee needed its big dogs to step up, its Conference USA Player of the Year did.
Redshirt senior JaCorey Williams went on a personal 6-0 run over three-straight possessions, and a corner three by senior Reggie Upshaw allowed the Blue Raiders to close the first half on a 9-1 run and cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 36-31 at the break.
“I was just trying to go get rebounds and trying to play more physical inside,” Williams said. “I didn’t really have a real physical presence early on, so I was just trying to take it upon myself to go inside and make something happen.”
Williams led the way with 20 points on 8 of 15 shooting with nine rebounds. Upshaw added 12 points, while redshirt junior Brandon Walters rounded out the double-figure scoring with 11.
Four Raiders – Upshaw, Williams, Aldonis Foote and Xavier Habersham – played in their final game for the blue and white.
Upshaw closes out what may be the greatest career ever at Middle Tennessee. The Chattanooga native finished with school records in wins (99), games played (140) and starts (114). He’s also second at MTSU in minutes played (3,965), third in steals (151), fourth in scoring (1,571), fourth in blocks (110), fourth in rebounds (910), fifth in field goals made (598) and tied for seventh in double-doubles (19).
“I wouldn’t trade anything that I’ve been through while I was here for anything in the world,” he said. “Coming here, I wasn’t the most highly recruited athlete in my state or at my school. For Coach Davis to take a chance on me and see something in me that I didn’t see in myself, and the way he’s helped me grow as a player and as a man, it’s what Middle Tennessee is about.
“I would never have imagined myself doing this, but, again, I just have to thank Coach Davis and the rest of the coaches for taking a chance and seeing something in me that I never expected to see in myself.”
Williams finished with one of the best single seasons at MT. His 621 points place him second on the all-time single-season list, while his 258 field goals made are third. He was the sixth Blue Raider to win a conference player of the year award while also landing on the all-conference first team and being named C-USA Newcomer of the Year.
Now, Middle Tennessee will attempt to do what Davis has been working towards in his 15 seasons at the helm: sustain a winning tradition.
“I think about it every day,” he said. “We lose Reggie (Upshaw) and JaCorey (Williams), and it’s hard to replace those two guys. But I like the base and we’ve had a good recruiting year early. This will be a year we look forward to, the sustainability of keeping our program going forward.
“The guys will reflect on the year, and in a couple of weeks we’ll get back at it again.”