"We came out strong and that good start was crucial to set the tone for the game."
- Middle Tennessee head coach Kermit Davis
Middle Tennessee stormed out to a big lead and fended off a late rally to knock off Florida International 71-66 Thursday night in Miami.
Kevin Kanaskie and Desmond Yates each scored 23 points to lead the Blue Raiders to their second straight Sun Belt road win.
MT held a 17 point second half lead on three different occasions, but the Golden Panthers got back in the game thanks to some quick hot shooting by guard Josue Soto.
But Yates and Kanaskie both made big shots in the closing minutes to keep FIU at arm's length and continue to rebuild momentum for next week's Sun Belt tournament.
Middle Tennessee dominated the game for most of the night but was in a tight situation when FIU's Nikola Gacesa nailed a 3-point to cut the lead to 62-58 with 3:15 remaining. The Blue Raiders with a near perfect possession that ended with a clutch Kanaskie 3-pointer from the corner to extend the lead back to seven. After a defensive stop to get the ball back, Eric Allen and Nigel Johnson recorded back-to-back offensive rebounds to help the Raiders maintain possession for 1:32 and run the game clock to less than 45 seconds.
G Eric AllenClick Here to view this Link.-For the second straight game, Allen stepped up in a big way. He scored eight points, but more importantly led the Raiders in rebounds and assists. With Demetrius Green still recovering from an ankle sprain, Allen logged 31 minutes and likely earned more of the coaching staff's confidence.
Honorable Mention: Nigel Johnson-Johnson is still waiting for a breakout performance that would signal a return to his former level of play, but the senior was solid against FIU and pulled two of the game's biggest offensive rebounds.
Season Star Count
DEFENDING THE BIG MAN
Fans that were at the first meeting between these two teams in Murfreesboro likely recall FIU forward Freddy Asprilla's monster performance at Murphy Center.
On that day back in January, Asprilla nearly led FIU to an upset win with a dominating 28 point, 10 rebound effort. Asprilla was good again on Thursday, but the Raiders didn't let him single handedly control the game.
Asprilla was limited to 13 points as MT used a series of double teams against him on his touches and did a good job denying good angles to get him the ball.
In the previous meeting, Asprilla and Alex Galindo combined to hit 18-of-30 shots against MT's defense. On Thursday, the Raiders limited the duo to 10-of-19 shooting, still a high percentage but not nearly as many shot attempts.
SPREADING IT OUT
The Raiders have often struggled this year keeping Yates out of foul trouble and defending quality post players.
MT turned the tables somewhat on FIU Thursday by utilizing Yates often away from the goal and facing the basket.
He was active driving the ball toward the goal early in the game and was able to use his quickness to his advantage against FIU's bigger front line.
It appears MT is going to try to exploit a quickness advantage at multiple positions over the remainder of the season.
MT can find mismatches against just about any opponent with guys like Nigel Johnson, Demetrius Green, Yates, and Montarrio Haddock all able to put the ball on the floor and go around defenders in space.
The more action MT can get going to the rim, the better Kanaskie's looks from the perimeter should be as well.
Kanaskie hit 4-of-8 from behind the arc at FIU, with nearly every shot from long range a great look.
A BIG FINALE
At one point this year, it looked like the regular season finale against Western Kentucky might be for a conference title.
It will be for the Hilltoppers, but nor the Raiders following MT's midseason struggles.
But that doesn't mean the game won't be hugely meaningful. The Raiders could still anywhere between the fourth and seventh seed for the Sun Belt tournament and they need a win to continue to build momentum for postseason play.
But the game is important for more reasons than just postseason positioning. MT needs to know it can beat WKU, not just for this season but for the continued growth of the program, and the chance to snap a current six game losing streak to the Toppers on senior day at Murphy Center will be a special opportnuity.
Home fans will have the chance to bid farewell to Kanaskie, Johnson, and Green. Even though the trio will have another game inside the Glass House in the first round of the conference tournament, this is an opportunity Blue Raiders fans shouldn't miss.
Feb. 28: Western Kentucky at Middle Tennessee, 7 p.m.