"Eric Allen's energy was just contagious in the second half."
- Middle Tennessee head coach Kermit Davis
Behind stellar performances off the bench by Eric Allen and Montarrio Haddock, Middle Tennessee advanced over Arkansas State 69-62 in the first round of the Sun Belt Tournament at Murphy Center Wednesday night.
Haddock scored eight first half points and 12 for the game while Allen finished with nine points that included a pair of critical second half 3-pointers.
The Blue Raiders led almost the entire game and responded well when the Red Wolves briefly took a one point second half lead with 11:32 remaining.
MT will play North Texas in the quarterfinals of the tournament on Sunday at 3 p.m. in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
The Blue Raiders held a lead ranging from five to eight points for the first five minutes of the second half, but an 11-2 run by ASU gave the Red Wolves a 40-39 lead about midway through the second half. The Blue Raiders called timeout to regroup and immediately got the lead back with an 11-4 run over the next three minutes. The spurt included a fast break basket for Demtrius Green and offensive rebound putback for Eric Allen.
G Nigel JohnsonClick Here to view this Link.-Johnson showed signs of returning to a high level of play as he handed out three assists and didn't turn the ball over. He hit a pair of first half 3-pointers and appeared more comfortable overall with the ball in his hands.
Honorable Mention: Kevin Kanaskie-Kanaskie played all 40 minutes and led the team with 13 points, but he was somewhat overshadowed in the backcourt by Allen's big performance and Johnson's slump-busting effort.
Season Star Count
Allen and Haddock combined for 21 of MT's 69 points and 10 of the team's 35 rebounds.
Together, the duo hit 9-of-13 shots (69.2 percent). The rest of the team hit 36.2.
On a team with a strong veteran presence, it was the pair of newcomers that most stood out in a balanced effort that resulted in victory.
"I thought we got great bench play tonight from Montarrio and (Allen)," MT coach Kermit Davis said. "Eric really gave us a lot of energy ... His energy was contagious in the second half. Bench play was critical tonight and I was proud of both of those guys."
Allen's heroics came in dramatic fashion. Both of his 3-pointers came in the final six minutes and his hustling offensive rebound with 2:46 to play led to a basket by Nigel Johnson to extend the lead back to six.
"I felt like I just needed to bring a lot of energy today," Allen said. "Usually when I rebound and play with a lot of energy I will hit shots. I just wanted to win that game. We all just wanted to win that game to keep playing. We want to go to the Big Dance."
WELCOME BACK NIGEL?
For the Blue Raiders to make a serious charge at the tournament championship, Nigel Johnson must be on top of his game. For the first time in a long time Wednesday, he showed flashes of rediscovering the type of performances that helped MT make a deep run last year.
Johnson hit some shots, played with a zip and bounce to his game not seen in some time, and also tied for the team lead in rebounds with six.
After weeks of waiting on Johnson to re-emerge, Davis sensed a performance like Wednesday's might have been on the horizon.
"Nigel has had his two best practices (on Monday and Tuesday)," Davis said. "I texted him Monday night to say he had the best practice he's had. He's been unbelievable the last two days and it was just great to see it (in the game)."
Johnson got going early when he hit consecutive 3-pointers within less than a minute of each other in the first half. Seeing the ball go through the net a couple of times in a row was a welcome sight for the senior, who has struggled mightily of late with his shot.
"(Making those threes) made my confidence go up. I had been in a shooting slump and those threes helped me out and made me play more aggressive tonight," Johnson said. "(Defenses) have been (playing off me) all year because I haven't really been being aggressive so I decided to step up, make shots, and be athletic. Like Coach Davis says, he talks to me every day about being aggressive and shooting my shots. That's what I decided to do tonight."
MT got much improved play from its backcourt in Wednesday's win but the Blue Raiders are going to need junior star Desmond Yates to play like a first team All-Sun Belt player in order to continue advancing.
Yates reached double figures against the Red Wolves, but he was passive on both ends of the floor and more inefficient than usual with his shot attempts.
"Boogie is one of my all time favorite players but he's got to get better," Davis said. "He won't guard and he wasn't physical. I don't know what we're going to have to do to get him to do better, to get him to defend and rebound and play with a toughness."
Other than Johnson and Green playing at a high level, Yates' tournament performances will likely be the single biggest factor that determines MT's success.
He's the player on the roster with the most talent and skill to single handedly will the Raiders to a win, and it's very possible he could be called on to do just that in any potential games in Hot Springs.
In 32 minutes against ASU, Yates shot just eight times, pulled down only three rebounds, and missed some costly defensive assignments that led to ASU second half baskets.
Mar. 8: Middle Tennessee vs. North Texas-SBC Quarterfinals, 3 p.m.