MURFREESBORO – Middle Tennessee State had nine days to think about its last loss.
On Tuesday, the Blue Raiders unleashed their anger against Marshall.
They pounced on the Thundering Herd from the start, never trailing but staving off a furious rally for an 86-78 victory in the opening round of the NIT in front of 4,556 at the Murphy Center.
Playing in the NIT for the first time since 1988, the fourth-seeded Blue Raiders (26-6) picked up their first postseason win since the 1989 NCAA Tournament. MTSU advances to play at No. 1 seed Tennessee, which defeated Savannah State on Tuesday, with a date and time to be determined.
Paced by 18 points and 13 rebounds from Sun Belt Conference MVP LaRon Dendy, MTSU snapped a two-game losing streak. The Blue Raiders last played on March 4 when the Sun Belt conference champs were upset in the quarterfinals of the league tournament by Arkansas State, dashing their NCAA Tournament hopes.
“I think it was probably more emotional for our team because of how the last week of our season went,” MTSU coach Kermit Davis said. “They were devastated after the Sun Belt tournament and their practice this week was physical and upbeat and great. I think we were just all positive that we’re rewarded for winning 25 games to get to go to this tournament. We played just like that.”
The Blue Raiders came out of the gate inspired, scoring the first eight points before Marshall finally scored at the 16:18 mark.
The Thundering Herd (21-14), a fifth seed despite having the highest RPI (43) of any team in the 32-team field, were playing their fifth game in seven days. They played four games in four days last week as they reached the championship of the Conference USA tournament before losing to Memphis in the championship game on Saturday.
“We’ve played enough games in the state of Tennessee that I’m a registered voter now,” Marshall coach Tom Herrion said. “I was concerned about our level of energy and what we had left in the tank. They jumped us early and we played from behind.”
MTSU beat Marshall at its own game – attacking the offensive glass. Both teams finished with 12 offensive rebounds for 17 second-chance points but the Thundering Herd entered the game ranked third in the country with 15.6 offensive rebounds a game. They also lost the overall rebounding battle, 38-36.
“Every Conference USA coach you talk to they say, ‘Oh my gosh, they just go back and get it every time,’” Davis said. “So I thought we matched it. If we could just be even. ... We outrebounded them by two, which was the biggest stat of the game.”
Capitalizing off offensive rebounds and easy dunks in transition – two by Shawn Jones, who had a season-high 15 points – MTSU took a 21-point lead with 8:31 left on James Gallman’s 3-pointer.
But the Thundering Herd, who looked unsettled and uninspired for most of the game, started to get into an offensive rhythm in a contest with 47 fouls. Shaquille Johnson, who had a game-high 19 points, made a driving layup to cap off a 21-5 run and cut the deficit to 80-75 with 1:43 left.
“We got back on defense and we just knew we had to get a stop because they were making some tough shots,” MTSU forward JT Sulton said.
The Blue Raiders got a stop and immediately turned it into offense.
Johnson’s 3-pointer with 55 seconds left was off the mark. Marcos Knight grabbed the rebound and pushed it up to Sulton for a dunk as he was fouled to put the game out of reach.
Sulton finished with 16 points, one of four players to score in double figures. Raymond Cintron added 12 and Jimmy Oden came off the bench for a career-high eight assists and no turnovers.
The win most likely capped off an impressive campaign at the Murphy Center. The Blue Raiders were 15-1 at home this season, with their only loss coming to Belmont on Nov. 20.
It also kept MTSU’s season alive, even if it is in a different postseason tournament than they expected.
“Last Monday, we were hurt,” Davis said. “We watched the tape at 6:30 in Hot Springs, Ark. and started there. On Tuesday, I thought as a staff we did a good job of uplifting them. We were very, very positive. We tried to get them going. ... We got into our physical practices and it started with LaRon. His leadership was fantastic this week. JT was a so much better practice player this week and it showed.”