FORT MYERS, Fla. – After a slow start at Florida Gulf Coast Saturday night, Middle Tennessee men’s basketball fought off the Eagles, 81-76, in a rollercoaster of a game in Fort Myers.
Senior Nick King led the way once again, logging career highs in points (32) and rebounds (11) on his way to his first double-double and the second by a Blue Raider in as many games.
The Raiders (5-1) had a lot of rust to shake off early after an 10-day layover from their last action which came against the Eagles (6-3) in Murfreesboro, falling behind 9-0 before King got MT on the board with a free throw after over three minutes had come off the clock at Alico Arena.
Brandon Walters finally got MT into the field goals made column with an old-fashioned 3-point play at the 14:50 mark before a Tyrik Dixon triple and Therren Shelton-Szmidt jumper cut the once 12-point lead in half.
That stretch of three consecutive possessions with a field goal was the start of a 15-4 run by the Raiders that put them back within one at 17-16. It was less than two minutes later that MT grabbed hold of their first lead at 20-19 thanks to a left-handed layup by James Hawthorne to head into the under 8-minute media timeout.
Middle Tennessee would eventually take a 29-21 lead before FGCU went on a 10-5 run to close the half with MT up 34-31.
After trailing on the boards 2-to-5 early, the Blue Raiders began crashing the boards like mad men to go up 22-12 on the glass at half, including 11 offensive rebounds that gave MT a 17-0 lead in second chance points at the break.
“We certainly looked like a team that had been off for 10 days early in the game,” head coach Kermit Davis said. “We kind of stabilized ourselves though and we were able to stay in it because we really started to rebound the ball at a high level.”
King was on double-double watch early, boasting 12 points and six boards at halftime, while Walters added eight points in the first 20 minutes and Potts pitched in five points and four steals.
Middle Tennessee opened up the second half with another strong run to the tune of 16-5, nine of which came from King to give him 20-plus points for the fifth straight game.
After the Blue Raiders stretched the lead to 14, Florida Gulf Coast pulled back within 10 on a few occasions before a Karl Gamble basket and free throw gave MT its largest lead of the game at 60-44.
Atlantic Sun Preseason Player of the Year Brandon Goodwin then began to single-handedly will the Eagles back into the game as he reeled off 10 straight for the Eagles in a 10-2 FGCU run to close the gap to eight.
“That’s a dynamic backcourt that FGCU has,” Davis added. “Goodwin is as good of a guard as we’ll play against this season. I love (FGCU head coach) Joe (Dooley)’s team and I think they’ll be an NCAA Tournament team again this season.”
The Eagles continued to slowly claw their way back as Middle Tennessee suffered a scoring drought of nearly three and a half minutes, bringing the score to 65-63 at the 5:26 mark.
MT and FGCU then traded baskets for multiple possessions to make the score 73-71. A pair of free throws by David Simmonsput him into double digits for the first time in his career and put MT up four before FGCU went 3-of-5 from the line on their next two trips to draw within one.
Simmons would finish with 11 points and five boards, filling in nicely with additional minutes off the bench in the absence of the injured Antwain Johnson.
The remainder of the game came down to free throws at both ends, as a missed free throw by Goodwin with 2.4 seconds remaining followed by four made free throws between King and Walters sealed the game’s fate in Fort Myers.
Walters finished with 12 points in the win while Giddy Potts added 10 points, four steals, three rebounds and three assists.
Middle Tennessee boasted a 42-28 edge on the glass and also benefitted from large advantages in points in the paint (46-to-30) and second chance points (22-to-5).
After flying home Sunday, the Blue Raiders return to action in a Wednesday night tilt at Vanderbilt that serves as the first of three consecutive contests against SEC foes.