BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – A wild night was sure to be on tap Saturday in Birmingham after Middle Tennessee upset the first place Blazers in Murfreesboro, and the outcome didn’t disappoint those in the Blue Raiders’ corner.
Middle Tennessee (7-16, 4-6 Conference USA) fought their hearts out in Bartow Arena to earn their sixth straight win in the series against UAB (14-9, 6-4) by a final score of 79-78 and continue to climb the C-USA standings.
“This was a really great team win for us,” Head Coach Nick McDevitt said. “To go on the road and win at their place isn’t easy, and I also really liked how we won.
“The things we had to do late to win that game required a tough and together team and that’s what we were tonight.”
The Blue Raiders looked to pick up right where they left off Wednesday evening against the Blazers, hitting five of their first seven shots and both 3-point attempts in the opening minutes to go up 12-4 before reaching the first media timeout.
The tides turned quickly after MT’s fast start, however, as UAB would open up a 22-2 run over a nine and a half minute period interrupted only by a Junior Farquhar runner with 10:59 on the clock.
Middle Tennessee, who has been susceptible to similar runs at times during the season, finally began to respond by way of a layup and 3-pointer by Antonio Green on back-to-back Blue Raider possessions to cut the deficit back to single digits at 28-19.
The remainder of the first half proved to be a dogfight on both ends with Green continuing to lead MT into the locker room with five of the Raiders’ last eight points bringing him to a game-high 13 points through 20 minutes.
Down 42-32 coming out of the locker room, it was Sims landing the first blow with a driving bank shot to open the second half scoring and put the sophomore in double figures.
After another basket by Sims with just inside 15 minutes remaining pulled the Blue Raiders within eight once again, a technical foul on UAB’s Lewis Sullivan sent Green to the free throw line and gave MT an extra possession that Reggie Scurry took full advantage of.
With the score at 49-45 in favor of the Blazers, Scurry’s basket served as the start of a stretch of dominance by the big man from Augusta, Ga. The forward scored 10 straight for Middle Tennessee in a period that saw the Raiders hold the Blazers to just five points to bring MT back within one at 54-53.
“At halftime our three bigs had combined for four points and six rebounds … we challenged them in the locker room at halftime and they responded,” McDevitt stated.
UAB responded with a pair of free throws out of the media timeout, but a quick three by Green on the other end evened the score for the first time in over 30 minutes of game time and it was game on in Bartow Arena.
After back-to-back baskets put the Blazers up four, James Hawthorne hit a buzzer beater from over 30 feet out before Green’s fifth triple of the night gave Middle Tennessee a 62-60 advantage that was its first lead since the 12:36 mark in the first half.
Another pair of lead changes would ensue highlighted by a flurry of trifectas from Green and Sims but as the clock ticked under one minute the Blue Raiders had work to do with a 3-point deficit on their hands.
A jumper by Scurry and a stop on the other end set the stage for fireworks, and the finish didn’t disappoint.
Senior James Hawthorne nailed a jumper from the elbow to put Middle Tennessee up 77-76, but leaving 10.9 seconds on the clock would give UAB another chance on its home floor.
The Blazers didn’t waste it as senior Jalen Perry knocked down a 2-pointer with 4.3 seconds of action left. Middle Tennessee, with no timeouts remaining, immediately inbounded it to Sims who took it up the floor and wisely drew a foul to earn a one-and-one.
The Murfreesboro native and hero of Wednesday night’s game stepped up once again, knocking down both free throws before watching Junior Farquhar pressure UAB’s Zack Bryant into a missed heave to give Middle Tennessee the well-deserved road win.
“The first thing coach said while we were waiting on the review was ‘Donovan is going to go up there and knock both of these in,’ so after that I just stopped thinking about the free throws and we started focusing on how we were going to defend them in that last second,” Sims stated.
The game-winning free throws gave Sims 23 points on 6-of-8 shooting, 3-of-5 from three and 8-of-9 from the charity stripe, while he stuffed the remainder of the box score with seven rebounds and six assists to zero turnovers.
Green tallied a game-high 28 points on the night with six makes from downtown while Scurry pitched in with 17 points and 10 boards to notch his fourth double-double of the season.
“Tonight was a great game with great pace and intensity,” Sims added. “We knew down the stretch we just had to be the toughest team. That last timeout we didn’t even sit we were just ready to get back on the floor and win it.”