MURFREESBORO, Tenn. No. 24 Middle Tennessee asserted its dominance of Conference USA by swatting away Western Kentucky’s attempt at an upset Thursday, winning 82-64 in front of 11,307 mostly delighted fans inside the Murphy Center.
The Blue Raiders (24-5, 16-1 Conference USA) took a nine-point lead into the second half and flat dominated from there. They led by as many as 23 while clinching the league’s title outright.
Four MTSU players finished in double figures led by Brandon Walters (18) and Nick King (18). Antwain Johnson added 17 and Giddy Potts finished with 11. The Raiders also recorded 18 assists in the their 11th straight win.
Western Kentucky (22-8, 14-3 Conference USA) was held to 44.4 percent shooting and plays at Alabama Birmingham (18-12, 9-8 CUSA) at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Middle Tennessee burst out of the gates Thursday with a 7-0 run thanks to five straight from Antwain Johnson. But Taveion Hollingsworth quieted the crowd momentarily with a pull-up jumped and Lamonte Bearden finished an and-1 to cut the score to 7-5.
Down 10-7 Western went to its 1-3-1 defense to get a steal at midcourt from Justin Johnson and an easy layup. Bearden scored two straight buckets after that to keep it a one-point game at 12-11 and 14-13.
Darius Thompson tied the game at 16-all with a right-corner 3 then gave WKU its first lead with another long 3 making it 19-18. The Hilltoppers then had a 24-22 lead after another Bearden score, but Potts drained consecutive 3s to put Middle back in front 28-24 with 8:18 to go in the half.
Down 34-32 late in the half, Western watched Middle end the period on a 9-2 run thanks to a Potts 3 from the right wing, an Ed Simpson 3 from the left corner and Antwain Johnson’s buzzer-beating bank-shot 3 as the horn sounded.
The Blue Raiders hit the locker room up 43-34 after shooting 60 percent, 63.6 percent from 3 and dishing out 12 assists.
Blue Raiders shooting 60 percent pic.twitter.com/HpA9Mh8JUP— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) March 2, 2018
The Blue Raiders came into the second half dominant and took command on a Donovan Sims layup that made it 49-36 and a David Simmons layup that kept the score at 51-38.
From that point Western found it hard to crack the 10-point deficit finding itself down 51-41 and 55-45. Middle extended the lead out to 60-45 with 10 1/2 minutes to play and then to 64-49 on a King tip-in with 8:18 to go.
The Hilltoppers had no answers whatsoever.
Bearden finished with 24 and Johnson added 14 and seven rebounds.
The final stats pic.twitter.com/55eUE3mYac— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) March 2, 2018
• Western Kentucky now leads the series against Middle Tennessee 93-43 but the Blue Raiders have won 13 of 15 and seven of the last eight in Murfreesboro.
• Under coach Rick Stansbury, WKU is now 11-16 on the road, 6-21 when trailing at halftime, 4-27 when trailing at the 5-minute mark, 34-15 when attempting more free throws than the opponent, 10-17 when getting out-rebounded by the opponent, 13-20 when finishing with fewer assists than the opponent, 2-2 in March and 11-5 on Thursday.
• Western has made at least one 3 in 968 straight games.
• The Blue Raiders have made at least one 3 in 703 straight games.
• Middle is now 91-14 at the Murphy Center has since 2011.
• Senior center Dwight Coleby (57) is now tied with Ben Lawson and Darius Hall for the ninth-most blocks in a single WKU season.
• Thompson has 144 assists, the ninth-most assists in a single WKU season. A.J. Slaughter is eighth with 147.
• Johnson (1,562) is 15th on WKU’s all-time scoring list. A.J. Slaughter is 14th with 1,581 career points.
• Johnson is fifth with 977 career rebounds at WKU. Jim McDaniels is fourth with 1,118.
• Hollingsworth (401) needs 12 points to move past Derrick Gordon (412) for the third-most points in a single WKU season by a freshman.
• Johnson is tied for seventh in WKU history with Courtney Lee, Boris Siakam and Orlando Mendez-VAldez with 127 games played as a Hilltopper. George Fant is sixth with 129.
• The Hilltoppers have outscored their opponents 1,216-896 in the paint this season.
• Johnson (485) is ninth for free throws attempted in a WKU career. McDaniels is eighth with 514.
• Johnson is ninth in WKU history with 3,490 minutes played. Slaughter is eighth with 3,550.
• Attendance on Thursday was announced as 11,307.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop