The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders punched their ticket to the Big Dance by holding off a spirited Old Dominion effort in a 55-53 final from Birmingham. For the first time since joining Conference USA in the 2013-14 season, the Blue Raiders will participate in the NCAA Tournament.
It was a defensive struggle from the outset (or perhaps poor offense depending on your perspective). Neither team was able to take control of the game in the first half and both struggled to solve the opponents defense. The two opponents were not separated by more than two possessions in the first half until Old Dominion went on a 7-1 spurt to close out the frame. The mini-run allowed the Monarchs to take a 28-23 lead into the half. It appeared as if momentum was shifting in the Monarch's favor.
For nearly nine minutes in the second half, ODU did not relent its lead. While MTSU was able to close the gap, Aaron Bacote and Trey Freeman combined to keep the Monarchs out in front. However, a turnover off of an inbound pass resulted in a Jaqawn Raymond basket on the other end to propel the Blue Raiders back in front with just over 11 minutes to play.
Upon obtaining their first lead since 3:53 to play in the first half, the Blue Raiders looked to take the game over with a run of their own. The Raymond basket was followed by a three-pointer from star sophomore Giddy Potts to push the lead to four. The lead would eventually swell to five with just eight minutes to play. It appeared now that the Monarchs, playing their fourth game in four days, were running out of steam.
But, four straight points from Denzell Taylor dragged ODU back into the thick of things. Trey Freeman followed Taylor's effort with four straight points of his own to cap off an 8-0 run to put the Monarchs back in front by three with five minutes remaining.
Darnell Harris responded for the Blue Raiders with three quick points before reaching the four minute mark. The score would remain tied at 49 apiece for nearly two and a half minutes before ODU's Brandan Stith reclaimed the lead for the Monarchs with just 1:45 to play. Two Perrin Buford free throws tied things back up for MTSU. Zoran Talley of ODU immediately responded with a two-point jumper and ODU held a two-point lead with only a minute to play.
Blue Raider junior Reggie Upshaw would not be denied though. Upshaw tipped in a missed shot from Buford to tie things back up. A three from Talley bounced off the rim that would have given the Monarchs the lead. Instead, it gave the Blue Raiders the ball with a chance to run the clock down to nearly zero. The ball ended up in Upshaw's hands and he delivered. Upshaw drove into the lane and drew a foul. Upshaw stepped to the free throw line and knocked down both shots to give MTSU the lead for good. With only two seconds to play, ODU threw up a prayer from beyond mid-court to no avail.
Naturally, it was two free throws that won the day for the Blue Raiders who ended the season as one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the country. The team came into the contest shooting just north of 61% from the free throw line on the season and Upshaw was shooting just above 50% from the line himself. But the only free throws that mattered were the two Upshaw sank in the final seconds of this contest.
As mentioned and evidenced by the low score, it was a struggle on offense for both squads in this contest. A day after dropping 99 points on Marshall, MTSU scored just 55 today on 36.5% shooting. Giddy Potts led the Blue Raiders in scoring with 14 points prior to fouling out. Despite MTSU's struggles from the field, ODU only managed 53 points a day after putting up 89 on Western Kentucky. Trey Freeman went for 17 points and seven rebounds to lead the Monarchs while Aaron Bacote chipped in 15 points of his own.
The win propels the Blue Raiders to their first NCAA Tournament as a C-USA member. This season will be the first return to the tournament for MTSU since their final year in the Sun Belt, when the Blue Raiders received an at-large bid. The Blue Raiders will be looking to have better luck in this tournament appearance as they lost to Saint Mary's in the First Four in that 2013 trip. However, MTSU is likely looking at a difficult fate as a low seed facing a powerhouse opponent in the first round. They will await their seeding fate on Selection Sunday. But, for now it is celebration time in Murfreesboro.