MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – On Thursday, Middle Tennessee’s Nick King was named one of 10 candidates for the Karl Malone Award, given annually to the nation’s best power forward.
He showed why he’s deserving of the honor Saturday in MT’s 79-73 win over North Texas.
The redshirt senior put together one of his best offensive outings of the season for the Blue Raiders (20-5, 12-1), torching the Mean Green (14-11, 7-5) for a career-high-tying 32 points on 11-of-21 shooting. He also had 11 rebounds for his eighth double-double.
It was King’s 15th game with 20 or more points and fourth with at least 30 this season, which ties the Middle Tennessee program record for career 30-point games. He went into the night third in Conference USA and 28th nationally averaging 20.9 points per contest.
“My teammates found me in the right spots, and when we opened the game they were kind of sagging off, so I decided to just shoot the ball,” King said. “Things just opened up throughout the offense.”
King’s big night started from the opening tip.
He scored the first 11 Blue Raider points and 23 in the first half as the blue and white got out to a fast start, pushing the lead to as many as 11 points in the game’s first 20 minutes.
“We stayed through the offense and in the pick and roll,” King said. “We get a lot of open shots through the pick and roll. At the end of the offense, we set that and get a long closeout, and I just have to make the shot.”
Despite King’s 23 points before halftime, though, the Mean Green stayed within striking distance thanks to their own strong offense behind sophomore Roosevelt Smart.
A 5-0 North Texas run in the first half’s last two minutes cut Middle Tennessee’s lead at the break to just 45-40 as the Mean Green closed the first half shooting 55.2 percent. Smart, C-USA’s fifth-leading scorer at 19 points per game, had his average in the first half alone and finished with 32.
“[Smart] has to be the best junior-college guard in Division I basketball right now as a first-year player,” MT head coach Kermit Davissaid. “He’s been doing that all year long, and we couldn’t do anything with him.”
The score stayed within two possessions for most of the way through the second half as neither team could string together multiple good defensive possessions.
A North Texas 3-pointer knotted the game at 69 with 5:40 left, and it looked like it was anyone’s game.
That’s when Middle Tennessee’s defense finally found a little footing, holding the Mean Green to just one make in their final six shots as the Blue Raiders closed the game on a 10-4 run to escape with the victory.
The late defensive effort was led by junior David Simmons, who took a key charge and also added 11 points off the bench.
“That’s just the toughness part of it – we always find a way to dig down,” junior Antwain Johnson said. “If we need a board, we’ll get a board, or a stop or whatever. That’s just the toughness part of our team.”
Senior Giddy Potts added 15 points for Middle Tennessee, and Johnson had 10 to go with a career-high seven assists.
The win was the seventh in a row overall for the Blue Raiders, who now lead the all-time series against the Mean Green 15-7 and 9-1 in the Murphy Center.
Middle Tennessee will be in action next on Thursday, Feb. 15 at Southern Miss. The game is scheduled for a 7 p.m. tipoff.
“We’ll get right back to work on Monday, because we didn’t guard as well in the last two games as we need to,” Davis said. “We’re going to get back to guarding the ball and doing some things in practice before we head to Southern Miss.”