Bowling Green, Ky. — By the time Middle Tennessee got on track Wednesday, Western Kentucky University’s defense had put the Blue Raiders in a hole they would never be able to climb out of at E.A. Diddle Arena. The Hilltoppers allowed MT to make just 5-of-22 shots in the first half, holding the Blue Raiders to 32.1 percent overall in picking up a 62-51 Sun Belt Conference in their first league home game.
MT (4-9, 1-2 Sun Belt) missed its first nine shots as WKU (10-4, 2-0 SBC) led wire-to-wire, including by double digits for all but six seconds of the final 29-plus minutes. The Blue Raiders were also charged with 10 of their 14 turnovers in the opening period, which resulted in 14 points for the Hilltoppers on the other end of the floor.
“I’m glad we were able to get a win in the Sun Belt against a team that we always know will be very difficult to play against,” said Hilltopper head coach Darrin Horn. “I thought our defensive effort was outstanding, that was a big key to the game.”
WKU controlled the contest from the outset, as it forced the Blue Raiders to miss 11 of their first 13 attempts from the floor while outshooting MT 56-24 percent in the opening 20 minutes as the Toppers led 35-19 at the break.
While MT struggled from the field, the Hilltoppers built a double-digit advantage behind the efforts of Tyrone Brazelton and Ty Rogers, who scored nine and seven points, respectively, in the first half. The former connected on a pair of layups for a 28-11 advantage with five-and-a-half minutes to go, and his three-pointer from the right wing two minutes later pushed the lead to 20 as WKU was up 33-13.
Rogers did most of his damage early, scoring five of the team’s first seven points as WKU was ahead by five three minutes after the tip. He opened the scoring with a running jumper on the baseline, then hit the first of the Hilltoppers’ three first-half threes two minutes after a Jeremy Evans layup.
A.J. Slaughter made two free throws with 11-and-a-half minutes left for a 16-5 advantage, which grew to 15 with 7:46 to go when Rogers followed a Steffphon Pettigrew dunk with a back-door layup off a pass from Orlando Mendez-Valdez to make the score 24-9.
Nigel Johnson scored eight of the Blue Raiders’ points in the opening half after going 3-of-4 from the field, while Desmond Yates added five as he made 3-of-4 free-throw attempts in the first 20 minutes.
After the Blue Raiders cut their deficit to eight points, 39-31, with 14:42 remaining on a Yates layup, Brazelton answered with a coast-to-coast drive and Courtney Lee followed with a three-pointer from the left corner 35 seconds later to put WKU up by double digits the rest of the way. MT made it a 10-point game twice more in the half, the second time with nine minutes to go after Theryn Hudson tipped in his own miss, but an 8-0 run by the Toppers put the contest out of reach.
The Blue Raiders missed nine shots in a row before Yates’ jumper with just under three minutes left made the score 58-42. Mendez-Valdez and Lee sparked WKU with three-point plays less than a minute apart.
Not only did the Hilltoppers limit MT to 17-of-53 shooting, they outrebounded the Blue Raiders 37-31 while connecting on 45.3 percent from the floor overall. WKU also finished with 10 steals — reaching double figures in the category for the sixth time this season — with Mendez-Valdez and Slaughter accounting for half with three and two thefts, respectively.
Brazelton was the only Topper to score in double digits, finishing with 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting to go along with three assists. Evans collected eight points and six rebounds, while Pettigrew posted eight points and Rogers and Slaughter both had seven. D.J. Magley led WKU with a career-best seven boards, with Rogers chipping in with five.
Yates paced the Blue Raiders with 16 points, Demetrius Green collected 11 and Johnson finished with 10. Hudson’s 13 rebounds led all players.
WKU is next in action Saturday, when it faces South Alabama — which improved to 3-0 in the conference with a 66-55 win at Florida International Wednesday — in Mobile. Tip-off is slated for 7:05 p.m. (CST).