BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Middle Tennessee was the class of Conference USA all season and it showed Saturday, as the Blue Raiders took down Marshall 83-72 to claim their second C-USA Tournament championship in a row.
The USA Today Coaches Poll No. 25 Blue Raiders completed a season sweep of the C-USA regular-season and tournament championships and became the fourth school in Conference USA history to register 30 wins in a season.
“Marshall played at such a high level,” MT head coach Kermit Davis said. “It was just a really exciting, fun game to watch. It’s quite an honor to get 30 wins and go back to the NCAA Tournament. I know our team thinks we have a lot of basketball left, and that’s going to be our mindset this next week.
“Tonight [the fan support] was so terrific. It was a huge part – it may have been a deciding factor in the game. That’s what a good fan base does … I know our guys were happy to win it for the Blue Raider faithful.”
Although MT (30-4) never trailed in the game, things weren’t always easy. The streaky-shooting Thundering Herd (20-15) turned what was at once an 11-point Raider lead in the first half into just a two-point separation with just under 13 minutes remaining.
From there, the Blue Raiders took back control on the strength of their defense and two of their leaders.
Middle Tennessee allowed the Herd, the top scoring offense in C-USA history (86.4 points per game), to make just two of their next 13 shots while senior Reggie Upshaw and junior Giddy Potts guided a 17-5 run, scoring 13 in that span.
“In the huddle everybody was kind of chipping in comments trying to uplift the team,” Upshaw said. “Myself, I was just trying to tell everybody we know where we want to be, we want to be back in that tournament, and the only way we were going to do that was to go and close the game out.
“We know what kind of team we have and we know when we really lock in on the defensive end we can really shut down players.”
It was the Blue Raiders’ ability to limit the Thundering Herd from distance that proved the difference defensively for the champions.
Marshall, which made the most 3-pointers (346) in the conference, was coming off a game in the semifinals in which it made 19 of 35 (53 percent). MT proved not to be worried, limiting the Herd to 10 for 32 from downtown.
“Our 1-3-1 was good early, but then they got us on some corner threes,” Davis said. “We had to go to man-to-man and a 2-3 zone, and with our length and athleticism we could switch and our fives could guard their ones.
“They’re going to make some shots. To hold them to 32 percent is really good.”
After making their run, all the Blue Raiders had to do was hang on. Marshall brought the lead back down to seven with 1:19 remaining, but a few free throws and close-range buckets got the job done.
Potts finished with a game-high 30 points, shooting 10 of 17, and grabbed eight rebounds. He was named the tournament MVP, while Upshaw and redshirt senior JaCorey Williams were named to the all-tournament team.
“Last week, we were talking about how the conference put me on the third team,” Potts said. “[My teammates] were telling me I just have to go out there and play my game and I would get MVP. I just came out and played, and I thank my coach and my team for this.”
Williams, a Birmingham native, poured in 17 points with six boards, while Upshaw had 15 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. Brandon Walters added eight points off the bench.
The tournament title is the fourth for Davis as a head coach and seventh all-time for Middle Tennessee. It also guarantees an NCAA Tournament berth for the ninth time in school history and third time in five years.
“There’s nothing better than going out as a champion,” Upshaw said. “This is something that I’ll be able to talk about for years to come. To be able to say we won the regular season outright and come in here and take care of business in the conference tournament means everything.”
The Blue Raiders will find out their NCAA Tournament seed, opponent and game location on Sunday during the Selection Show beginning at 4:30 p.m.