As I wrote in ahead of this game in my last recap, the buzz around this event was gigantic on the campus of WKU and it would not disappoint in any respect. High stakes: check. Full arena: check. Bitter rivals: check. Tournament-feel hoops: check. Fans got it all on Saturday night in WKU's Diddle Arena.
Mighty Middle Tennessee stood at 14-1 in the Sun Belt coming into the game with that lone blemish coming at Denver. Few teams win at Denver (neither St. Mary's nor Southern Miss could do it). The Raiders had already locked up the top seed for the conference tournament, but they had plenty at stake as their very real but fragile at-large NCAA hopes hung in the balance. Also, while WKU has a giant lead in this series overall, MTSU could win their sixth straight versus WKU, a never before seen Raider string in the history of this series.
On the WKU side, the #hashtags were flowing leading up to this important Hilltopper season finale WKU. WKU athletics had billed this as #DiddleVsMiddle in order to reach a sellout. This game was also pushed as #wku7326, the number being the amount of seats available for sale in Diddle Arena. Now, attempting to sell out a 7,300+ seat arena for a sub-red line team with a 10-18 record that touts only one senior on senior night (he being a junior college transfer) sounds futile. But, as I have said before, it has been a bizarre season for the Toppers and it keeps bringing surprises. The sellout was achieved. Newly minted interim-turned-full-time head coach Ray Harper (now 2-0 as head coach) donned a bright red sport coat, and much of Topper Nation was amped to end the five game skid against the Raiders, explode MTSU's at-large hopes (as they did to WKU in 2006), and take Middle town a peg or two.
The Blue Raiders set the tone right away as the Belt Boss, racing out to a 10-0 lead to start the game. They also led 15-6 and by as many as eleven points in the first ten minutes. The sudsy, sold-out crowd sat de-frothed, as the Toppers' two starting bigs each picked up two early fouls and rode pine for 16+ first half minutes while Middle worked on those leads. MTSU's LaRon Dendy (a Sun Belt Player of the Year contender) took advantage by racking up 11 first half points. But, clawing through adversity is in the fiber of this young WKU team, and they used good, old-fashioned scrambling for loose balls and pesky turnover creation to keep the game close. They trailed by just three points at halftime despite the foul trouble and the full Dendy-ing that happened early.
The second half opened with another 10-0 blitz, but this time the home-standing Toppers were the runners. With the crowd in full throat, MTSU coach Kermit Davis did not call a timeout, but instead saw his blue-clads calmly rip off eight straight to shush the throng and reclaim the lead. See-sawing ensued. I pause here to note that the building's temperature was rising with the full capacity and the ballooning stress in the joint. The smell of old wood, popcorn, sweat, and industrial paint saturated the dense Diddle atmosphere. At some point around the under eight media timeout, I felt the arena air conditioning waft over me, but it was fighting a losing battle at this late stage. Everyone's bodily hygiene was tested.
The home team kept control down the stretch, and a critical offensive rebound and put-back by WKU true freshman T.J. Price put the Toppers up five very late. The Raiders would not give in, making a number of critical buckets and free throws in the fleeting moments, but in the end, the Toppers' 21-24 (87.5%) free throw shooting (many of those down the stretch) would keep the late heroics at bay. The young Toppers, with help from the sellout crowd and grand atmosphere, emerged victorious over Mighty Middle. Diddle over Middle.
While the WKU fan in me was absolutely ecstatic with the win, one dark cloud looms over the victory from my perspective as a Sun Belt and Mid-Majority fan. This severely damaged MTSU's at-large hopes if they should need them, and probably opened the door a little wider for some Big 6 team with a losing conference record. MTSU will have won six of eight conference road games; demolished UCLA in Los Angeles by 20; beaten a couple of fine non-conference teams in Belmont and Akron; went 14-2 in conference; and won ten road games. And, they will probably get passed over if it comes to it.
It always ends with a loss, and MTSU's at-large hopes probably died with this defeat. They will likely need to win next weekend's Sun Belt Tourney to get to the Big Dance to have another part of themselves end with a loss one more time. I must say, this Raider team can defend any team in any league. I do not know if they have enough shooters or perimeter speed to deal with some of the NBA Lites of the world, but if WKU cannot be the Belt representative, I hope MTSU gets a shot to see what they can do. They certainly have earned it, even if a bid is not awarded. I am not being a Belt homer here: if MTSU loses next weekend, I still believe they would likely be one of the best 37 at-large teams available even if their "profile" is not strong enough.
That said, the Tops finished 6-4 down the stretch and led very late in the three of those losses. They at least have to be taken seriously in the tourney, especially given that they are the only team toting wins over both division champs (MTSU and UALR). The Sun Belt tourney starts next Saturday, with WKU facing FIU on Saturday night and MTSU with a bye until Sunday. They will face the winner of FAU and Arkansas State.
at WESTERN KENTUCKY 73, MIDDLE TENNESSEE 67 02/25/2012
MIDDLE TENNESSEE 25-5 (14-2) -- L. Dendy 6-8 5-10 18; K. Hammonds 2-4 0-0 4; B. Massey 4-6 0-0 8; M. Knight 5-11 3-5 13; R. Cintron 6-8 0-0 15; J. Sulton 2-6 0-0 4; J. Jones 1-2 1-1 3; S. Jones 1-4 0-0 2; J. Oden 0-1 0-2 0; J. Gallman 0-0 0-0 0; Z. Gibson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-50 9-18 67. WESTERN KENTUCKY 11-18 (7-9) -- D. Gordon 1-6 9-10 11; J. Crook 4-11 1-3 9; T. Price 4-7 3-3 13; K. McDonald 3-10 2-2 10; T. Akol 5-8 0-0 12; G. Fant 1-2 2-2 4; O. Akamune 2-2 0-0 4; V. Zollo 3-4 0-0 6; N. Snipes 0-2 2-2 2; K. Anyigbo 0-0 2-2 2. Totals 23-52 21-24 73.
Three-point goals: MTSU 4-11 (J. Oden 0-1; L. Dendy 1-2; K. Hammonds 0-1; M. Knight 0-2; R. Cintron 3-5), WKU 6-19 (T. Akol 2-4; J. Crook 0-1; K. McDonald 2-7; D. Gordon 0-1; T. Price 2-5; N. Snipes 0-1); Rebounds: MTSU 25 (L. Dendy 7), WKU 30 (T. Price 7); Assists: MTSU 16 (K. Hammonds 7), WKU 11 (J. Crook 8); Total Fouls -- MTSU 25, WKU 20; Fouled Out: MTSU-None; WKU-None.