MILWAUKEE, Wis. – Middle Tennessee’s dancing shoes are staying on, as the Blue Raiders beat Minnesota 81-72 to move into the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.
The win was the second in a row in the tournament’s first round over a Big Ten team for the Blue Raiders (31-4), who are the 12 seed in the South portion of the bracket while the Golden Gophers were the five seed.
“We beat a really physical, tough Big Ten team,” MT head coach Kermit Davis said. “The key today was 37-24 rebounding. The plus-13 for us was a big part of the win.”
The game promised to be a war of attrition at Milwaukee’s BMO Harris Bradley Center, as two of the country’s better defenses were represented. Minnesota went into the game with the 16th-best field goal percentage defense in the nation (39.8), while Middle Tennessee sported the 20th-best scoring defense at 63.3 points per game.
MT’s defense proved better on Thursday, as it held the Golden Gophers to 46 percent (24-52) shooting and 29 percent (6-21) from 3-point range.
Minnesota leading scorer Nate Mason (15.5 per game) was also held in check. He managed just five points on 2 of 10 shooting.
“I felt like our [1-3-1] was probably the reason we won today,” senior Reggie Upshaw said. “It kind of threw their guards off and definitely threw off Mason. He wasn’t able to get into the paint and make plays for others.”
Things got close with just under seven minutes remaining. The Golden Gophers cut a 17-point MT lead to just four with 6:43 left, but Upshaw took control and led the finish.
The senior leader scored nine-straight for the Blue Raiders as they pushed the lead back to double digits. He finished with a game-high 19, shooting 7 for 13, and also had a team-high nine rebounds.
“During a timeout we were confident we would be able to weather the storm of their run,” Upshaw said. “In my head, I was thinking I’m the senior leader … I felt like it was the perfect time for me to step up and kind of shoulder the offense and try to get everyone else going.”
The Blue Raiders didn’t get out of the gates well to start the game, but an impact off the bench got things rolling.
They found themselves in an early 7-0 hole after missing their first five shots, but redshirt junior Brandon Walters came to the rescue. He checked in and scored four quick points while ripping down six rebounds in just four minutes and was also active defensively, blocking a shot and forcing a jump ball to give the Raiders another possession.
Walters’ energy seemed to ignite MT’s offense, as it made 12 of 15 from the floor in the last 10 minutes of the first half to take a 37-31 lead into the break.
“I think Brandon took it as a challenge to come in and effect the game,” redshirt senior JaCorey Williams said. “He gave us a great spark.”
The Blue Raiders didn’t cool down in the locker room at the break, as they came out still blistering hot in the second half. They made eight of their first 11 shots after halftime and went on a 22-11 run to go up by as many as 17.
Middle Tennessee’s hot shooting wasn’t its only bright spot offensively. The nation’s 12th-best turnover team gave the ball up just eight times compared to 19 assists. Freshman Tyrik Dixon and junior Giddy Potts led the way in the assist department with five each.
“We’re one of the top-15 teams in the country in assists to turnovers,” Davis said. “Minnesota is one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten, so it was a key part. It was really a well-played game by both teams taking care of it.”
Nine of the 10 players who saw the floor for the Blue Raiders scored. Williams and Potts both had 12, while Walters rounded out the double-figure scoring with 10.
Middle Tennessee will square off against fourth-seeded Butler in the second round on Saturday.