CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Middle Tennessee gutted out its 10th league win of the season Saturday night at Charlotte, downing the 49ers by a narrow margin of 78-73.
The Blue Raiders shot 50.8 percent on the night, but an uncharacteristic night on the defensive end saw the 49ers shoot at a 53.1 percent clip.
“We knew what to expect and what their guards are capable of, but I don’t think we came out quite as ready to go as we should have,” junior guard Antwain Johnson said. “We’re a lot better defensive team than we showed tonight, that’s an area we really could have improved on in this one.”
The win, MT’s nation-leading 10th true road win, combined with a WKU loss at UTSA gives the Blue Raiders a 1.5 game advantage over both the Hilltoppers and Old Dominion with seven games left to play.
“What our team has done to secure a nation-leading 10 road wins is great,” head coach Kermit Davis stated. “We’ve really found a way to make plays late in games and we did it again today.”
“[Our success on the road] really comes down to our toughness and that we always find a way to make plays down the stretch,” Johnson added.
The Blue Raiders got off to a solid start, hitting their first two shots without catching a hint of the rim, before missing their next four and eight of their next 10. Despite the cold stretch, MT never trailed by more than three at 14-11 and tied it right back up with a triple by Johnson.
After a basket by the 49ers made it 16-14, Middle Tennessee went on a 15-4 run to open up a 29-20 lead with five minutes remaining in the half.
Charlotte climbed back within five at the 3:07 mark before the Raiders went back to work, using a 6-0 run to go up 39-28 and would enter the locker room leading 42-33 after another 3-pointer by Johnson.
Johnson led the way in the first half with 14 points before the break for the second consecutive game. The Greenwood, Fla., native finished with a career-high 23 points to follow up a then season-high 18 at Old Dominion. He also added three assists and three steals on the night.
Middle Tennessee scored first to open the second frame as a Nick King layup opened the Blue Raider lead back up to 11, but Charlotte wouldn’t go quietly on their home floor. The Niners pulled within six at the 12:34 mark and had the crowd on their feet.
Just as they have done so many times on the road this season, the Blue Raiders quieted the Halton Arena crowd right back down as a 10-4 run pushed the lead back to 12 at 66-54, matching its largest lead of the game.
The 49ers, however, had one more run in them.
High-scoring guard and preseason all-conference selection Jon Davis led the charge, scoring 10 straight for Charlotte over a four-minute stretch to make the score 73-70 in favor of the Blue Raiders with 1:32 remaining.
Tyrik Dixon answered Davis’ old-fashioned 3-point play with a 3-point play of the long range variety, but yet another basket plus one kept the Blue Raider lead at three.
After missed jumpers on both ends the 49ers were forced to foul, and with four ticks on the clock, King stepped to the line calm, cool and collected, knocking down a pair of free throws to lock down the win and a game high 24 points.
The senior from Memphis added a career-high 12 rebounds on the night for his second consecutive double-double, his seventh of the season, and added three assists.
Dixon added 10 points and three assists while Karl Gamble collected six points and six boards off the bench. Senior guard Giddy Potts played just 13 minutes on the night, suffering an injury that held him out the entire second half.
“The bench came out and played good and we really needed Antwain Johnson tonight in Giddy’s absence,” Davis said. “He had another really excellent night tonight.”
The Blue Raiders return to action Thursday when they host Rice in the Murphy Center at 6:30 p.m.