MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – The Middle Tennessee men’s basketball team (1-0) used a dominant performance late in the second half to overcome a 12-point deficit with 17:11 left to take a 78-75 victory against Southern University (0-2) inside the Murphy Center Sunday afternoon.
The win extends MT’s regular season home winning-streak to 29 games, which is the second longest in the nation.
The Blue Raiders were led by outstanding performances from Neiko Hunter andKerry Hammonds II. Hunter paced MT with a career-high 20 points, going 6-of-11 from the floor and 3-for-4 from three-point range. His previous career-best was 17 points, which he recorded Feb. 7, 2013 against Arkansas State.
Hunter also tied for a game-high six rebounds, while Hammonds was the leader from the free throw line, going 14-16 at the charity stripe for a total of 19 points on the night. The 14 freebies marked a career-high for Hammonds.
“I didn’t feel pressure that I had to be the guy to score,” Hunter said. “I knew we had to just keep running the offense. I just knew that I had to get open a couple times. We knew it was going to be a really tight game because Southern is a great team and they have tough guys.”
Seniors Shawn Jones and Tweety Knight each reached double-digits, posting totals of 10 and 12 points, respectively. Marcus Tarrance came off the bench for Head Coach Kermit Davis’ squad, finishing as the third leading scorer for MT with 13 points on 3-of-4 shooting, while going 5-for-9 from the line.
This marked the first time five Blue Raiders have scored double-figures since an 85-50 win against South Alabama Feb. 21, 2013.
Early on the Blue Raiders had complete control of the game, opening with a 15-2 run with 13:02 remaining in the first half. During the run Hunter hit back-to-back threes, giving MT what seemed like momentum that would carry on through the first half.
Southern went on a 19-6 spurt, leveling the score at 21-all with 6:33 left in the half. MT and Southern would tie the score up four more times through the next three minutes, the last being with 2:57 left in the half at 28 apiece.
“The game was just about exactly what I expected,” Davis said. “We played a quality opponent that is really, really well coached, that has won a bunch of games and I think that we just played an NCAA Tournament team.”
The Jaguars would open up the closing minutes of the first half, scoring seven points to MT’s three as Southern took a 35-31 lead at the intermission. At the break, Southern shot 48-percent from the floor to MT’s 25-percent, while MT took the 27-10 free throw advantage into the locker room.
Southern opened the second stanza, pushing the lead up to 12 with 17:11 remaining in the game for MT’s largest deficit of the contest. Jones went on to rattle in two back-to-back buckets, making the score 45-37 only a few minutes later.
Despite the valiant effort by the Blue Raiders, the Southern lead would remain and reached double-digits once more after a three-point basket from way beyond the arc with 11:07 on the clock to make it 57-47.
Through the next six minutes MT with the help of Tarrance from the free throw line, chipped away at the SU lead, tying the score at 61-all, the final time the score would be tied with 5:25 left.
Middle Tennessee went on a 6-1 run, giving the Blue Raiders the lead back from Southern, which held the lead for 19:36. MT used a clutch free throw performance down the stretch, going 10-for-12 from the line to close out the Jaguars attempt at stealing the game in the Murphy Center.
With 2:05 left to play, a three-ball from Southern’s Malcolm Miller cut the MT lead to two at 69-67. A layup by Knight and a free throw from Hunter with 1:19 remaining put Middle Tennessee up 72-67, but a Jaguar layup a few seconds later cut the Blue Raider advantage to three.
With just 26 seconds on the clock, Knight netted a pair of free throws to give MT a 74-69 lead, but SU’s Tre Lynch buried three-pointer and cut the deficit to two-points.
Knight went to the line again, sinking the pair to put the Blue Raiders up 76-72 with 16 seconds on the clock. Knight’s four-straight free throws in 10 seconds paid off though as Lynch made another three just six seconds later.
Southern then fouled Hammonds right after the ball was inbounded, sending him to the line for MT with a 76-75 lead and eight seconds on the clock. The Blue Raider veteran drained them both, putting MT up three. The Blue Raiders played strong defense and forced Lynch to launch another three-ball, but this time he was off balance and it was way off the mark, giving MT the 78-75 victory.
“(Knight) had no turnovers; to play 36 minutes and to not have a turnover against that good of a defensive team,” Davis said. “I really thought he lowered his head and took angles to the rim, finished some really good balls in the second half. That’s the first time (Knight) has played that many minutes here in this kind of role and I think he’ll keep building on that.”
In addition to his 12 points, Knight added six rebounds and handed out a team-high five assists, while swiping three steals. He was 6-for-8 from the charity stripe.
“I was trying to get my teammates open shots and find them,” Knight said. “I stepped up to the free throw line and made some plays to help my team win tonight. We were able to move the ball on offense in the second half. That’s basically what it is, trusting in offense and being able to move the ball from side to side. Coach is big on that.”
Miller led Southern, putting up 20 points, while Lynch added 14. Christopher Hyder quarterbacked the Jaguar offense, dishing out nine assists, while Clavin Godfrey snagged a team-best six boards to go along with eight points.
The Blue Raiders went on to get the rebound advantage behind the strong performances of Jones, Hunter and Knight with six each, tallying 38 rebounds to Southern’s 25. SU still ended the night shooting 49-percent from the floor, while MT improved from its first half numbers to 38-percent.
The Blue Raiders were 35-of-55 from the line, compared to Southern’s 15-of-23. The 55 attempts is the second most in a single game in program history, passing the 49 attempts against Louisiana Jan. 8, 2011. The school record is 63 set Feb. 18, 1957 against Eastern Kentucky.
“We have to keep getting better, even in game day practices,” Davis said. “We play North Florida, who played Florida’s tail off the other night. Obviously, we’ve got an Akron team that’s really good coming up too. It’s good to be here at home. We have to be smart with our players from a physical standpoint, but really be good mentally over the next week.”
Middle Tennessee will host North Florida Wednesday, Nov. 14 in the Murphy Center starting at 7:00 p.m.