Murfreesboro, Tenn. — Tyrone Brazelton had 20 points, four assists and three steals Saturday to help lead Western Kentucky University to a 71-66 Sun Belt Conference basketball victory over Middle Tennessee at The Murphy Center.
The Hilltoppers (21-5, 13-1 Sun Belt) earned their 11th win in a row despite shooting just 40.7 percent from the field, as Courtney Lee added 18 points and six rebounds and Jeremy Evans collected 11. Mike Walker recorded a game-high nine rebounds as well for WKU, which will now take on South Alabama — which is one game back in the loss column in the league’s East Division standings entering its contest against Florida Atlantic tonight — at E.A. Diddle Arena Thursday at 7 p.m. (CST).
The Toppers also clinched a first-round bye at next month’s conference tournament after completing the season sweep of the Blue Raiders (12-13, 9-6 SBC).
“We knew coming into this game that it was going to be tough, it always is. [MT head coach] Kermit [Davis] always does a good job of getting his team ready to play, and trying to take away the things that we like to do,” said WKU head coach Darrin Horn. “Nobody has been playing better in our league these last couple of weeks than Middle Tennessee, so we expected it to be exactly the kind of game that it was.
“We told our guys heading into it, and talked about it during the game and at halftime, that this was a game that we were going to have to fight and find a way to win. I think we did that, but you have to credit Middle — they did a terrific job today, are a much-improved team and are a huge threat as we head into the conference tournament.”
WKU limited the Blue Raiders to an opponent-low 36 attempts from the field after forcing 22 turnovers — Nigel Johnson was responsible for eight, while four other MT players were credited with more than two. Lee and Ty Rogers both posted two steals to help the Toppers finish with 11 as a team, the third time in the last five outings they have reached double digits in the category.
It was Brazelton’s three-point play with just over 12 minutes remaining in the contest that gave the Hilltoppers the lead for good. Orlando Mendez-Valdez followed with a jumper with 10-and-a-half minutes left to push the advantage to five. Demetrius Green made it a two-point game, 56-54, when he converted a pair of free throws at the nine-minute mark, but Lee answered with a free-throw and a three from in front of the WKU bench to put the Toppers up 62-54 with six minutes left.
Green led all scorers with 22 points, and he added four steals and four rebounds. Desmond Yates supplied 17 points and five rebounds, and Johnson scored 10 points as well.
Dino Hair made it a one-possession game when he made the second of two free-throw attempts with three-and-a-half minutes remaining, and after trading scores Johnson sank two foul shots with 27 seconds to go to pull MT within one, 66-65.
WKU closed out the contest, though, with Brazelton making a pair of free throws and Lee adding one before A.J. Slaughter stripped Johnson of the ball while he was driving towards the basket and converted both shots from the foul line for the final margin of victory.
The Hilltoppers had a 31-25 lead following the under four-minute time-out when Mendez-Valdez connected on a pair of free throws, but the Blue Raiders closed the half on a 13-3 spurt to take a four-point advantage into the locker room. Green, Kevin Kanaskie and Yates combined to make eight straight free throws before the latter’s jumper 21 seconds before the break put MT ahead 35-33, giving it its first lead since the midway point of the half.
Johnson ended the run with a three-point play with one second to go in the period.
Actually, the Blue Raiders went almost seven minutes without a field goal while coming back, finishing the half 15-of-19 at the foul line.
When Yates scored the first basket two minutes into the second half, MT had its largest lead.
Lee and Brazelton sandwiched three-pointers around a pair of Walker free throws, though, to tie the game 42-42. The Blue Raiders went back ahead by three after Green hit two free throws and Yates went down the baseline for a dunk at 13:41 before Rogers evened the contest with a trey 18 seconds later.
The Toppers hit twice as many shots as MT from long range, with Brazelton and Lee combining to go 5-of-12 from beyond the three-point arc.
The end of the first half wasn’t the first run made by the Blue Raiders, which used five consecutive points to go ahead 19-15 after Kanaskie hit a three from the left wing with 10:40 remaining to force the Toppers to take a time-out.
WKU then answered with a 12-0 run, taking its biggest lead of the game at 27-19 with 7:45 left when Lee converted a layup. He also sank a trey during the spurt, finishing with eight points in the first 20 minutes after scoring just six — the only time this year he’s been held to single digits — in the first meeting between the two teams Jan. 2.
Brazelton led the Toppers with 12 points before the break, which saw seven ties and seven lead changes.
Kanaskie matched Yates for team-high rebounding honors after grabbing five boards to go along with eight points. The Blue Raiders shot 47.2 percent overall and 76.3 percent at the free-throw line after converting 29-of-38 foul shots.
There were 11 ties and 10 lead changes overall in the game.