MTSU primed for first tourney berth since ’89

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – Middle Tennessee closed an amazing regular season with an exclamation mark here Saturday night.
   
Not only did the Blue Raiders beat Sun Belt Conference rival Western Kentucky 70-62 in front of a raucous sell-out crowd of 7,326 at Diddle Arena to sweep the season series, but the victory added to an already-impressive resume for a team seeking its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1989.
   
“Yes, no question,” Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said when asked if the Blue Raiders (27-4, 19-1 in Sun Belt) have done enough to garner an NCAA tourney at-large bid should they not claim the league’s automatic bid by winning the Sun Belt tourney, which begins Friday in Hot Springs, Ark.
   
“Win 27 games, ninth-best non-conference schedule in college basketball, third-longest winning streak in college ball, second-most wins,” Davis added. “You win 19 games in this league and win on the road against good teams in this league, so I definitely think we have.”
   
Then again, MTSU also won the Sun Belt regular-season title last season and entered the conference tournament on a roll, but after they were sent home early with a quarterfinal-round loss, all the Blue Raiders could show for a potential breakthrough season was an invitation to the NIT.
   
But this season has a different feel, although the winning has remained the same. In as much, all the Blue Raiders have done this season is build on last year’s team-record 27 wins.
   
To wit . . .
   
* MTSU has won a team-record 16 games in a row and 19 of its last 20.
   
* The team’s eight straight road wins is also a school record. Over the past two years, the Blue Raiders have won 22 road games, which ties them for most in the country during that span heading into Saturday’s play.
   
* MTSU and Michigan are the only teams in the country to win 16 home games without a loss this season.
   
* Most importantly, the Blue Raiders ranked 27th nationally in the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) heading into this past week, according to NCAA.com. That should remain the same this week.
   
So, yes, the Blue Raiders think they have done enough already to make the NCAA Tournament field. But you won’t find them taking that approach when they play in their last Sun Belt tournament before heading to Conference USA next season.
   
“Our mindset going into the tournament is that we are going there with an absolute passion to win the tournament,” said Davis, who’s in his 11th season at the MTSU helm and became the Sun Belt’s all-time winningest coach this year. “We understand we can’t take anything for granted at our level.”
   
That intensity came through Saturday night in a hotly contested game with Western Kentucky (16-15, 10-10), which had won three in a row before the loss. You can count Hilltoppers coach Ray Harper among those who feel MTSU’s resume is already worthy of an NCAA tourney bid.
   
“It had better be,” said Harper, who took over the Western Kentucky reigns in midseason last year and guided the team to the Sun Belt tourney title and an NCAA tourney berth. “They have done everything they need to do to get in. They have seven seniors and a veteran club that plays like it.”
   
The Hilltoppers did everything they could Saturday night to keep MTSU from going into the league tournament on a winning roll. The Hilltoppers erased a nine-point deficit in the second half with a 15-4 run that eventually netted a two-point lead with 9 minutes to play.
   
But MTSU’s experience down the stretch was the difference. After a 3-pointer from the corner by WKU junior guard Brandon Harris tied the game with 1:54 to play, MTSU scored the game’s final eight points to secure the victory.
   
“It was a terrific college basketball game,” said Davis, whose top-seeded team opens Sun Belt tourney play at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against the winner of Friday’s game between opponents still to be determined.
   
“We had to play with some real mental toughness at the end to win,” Davis added. “Sometimes, this league takes some knocks. But it’s a really good basketball league. And people around the country got to watch that today (on national television.)”
   
Senior forward J.T. Sulton led MTSU with 17 points and seven rebounds. He also became the 30th Blue Raider to score 1,000 career points. Senior guard Bruce Massey added 11 points for MTSU, which also got 10 points from junior forward Shawn Jones.
   
The Hilltoppers were led by sophomore forward George Fant with 18 points and six rebounds. Sophomore guard T.J. Price added 14 points, while senior guard Jamal Crook, who didn’t play in the first meeting between the teams because of injury, had 10 points.
   
“I thought our guys competed,” said Harper, whose team enters the Sun Belt tourney as the No. 6 seed and plays 11th-seeded Louisiana-Monroe on Friday at 6 p.m. “A break here or there, and it’s a different game. We did some really good things. We have some things we need to do better.”
    
Despite leading most of the first half, the Blue Raiders couldn’t pull away from WKU. It did appear MTSU would surge to a comfortable lead by halftime, though, when consecutive deep 3-pointers from junior guard Kerry Hammonds gave the visitors a 27-18 lead with 2:01 remaining before intermission.
   
But a traditional 3-point play from Fant and another quick bucket by Crook stopped the MTSU surge. A 3-pointer by Price pulled WKU within three points before a driving basket by Massey beat the buzzer to give MTSU a 31-26 halftime lead.