After a sloppy start against conference foe Troy, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders surged ahead and never looked back Thursday night in front of a raucous home crowd, defeating the Trojans 71-58.
The first ten minutes of the ball game were forgetful for both teams. With 9:03 left to play in the first half, Troy had a slight 18-17 lead. It was then that MT guard Ray Cintron dialed in from three-point range and sparked a Blue Raider scoring run.
Cintron buried 3 consecutive three-pointers, and ignited the home crowd with his antics after his buckets. After his second straight made bucket, Cintron pounded his chest while staring down the student section on his way back down to the defensive end. After another shot fell for "the Puerto Rico Assassin", Cintron gave the "ok sign" over his right eye - a move he dubbed "the Raider" after the game. Cintron definitely paced the Raiders in the first half, but other players like LaRon Dendy and JT Sulton got involved in the action as well, resulting in a 21-6 run that propelled the Raiders to a 39-30 halftime lead.
The second half included more success for Middle Tennessee. Bench players like Jason Jones and Shawn Jones played key roles in extending the lead. Despite a bold 22-point effort from junior guard Will Weathers, Troy was sent packing, falling to 7-12 (2-6) on the season.
This win marked the 20th of the year for MT, improving the already-broken school record for the best start in school history. However, the win streak, which has been increased to 12, is in jeopardy when the Raiders take on the in-state powerhouse Vanderbilt Commodores. The game will go down on Saturday, January 28 at Memorial Gym. Tip-off is scheduled for 1:00 PM CT.
Kermit Davis on the team performance:
Coach Kermit Davis felt his team could have played better, but a win is still a win. In the post-game press conference, Coach Davis explained his mindset on the win for his team.
"We were not our best, but we found a way to win," Davis said. "And that is what is important."
One of Davis's major points is always assist-to-turnover ratio and assist-to-basket ratio. The unselfish play of the Blue Raiders was impressive, and Davis made that known.
"23 assists on 26 baskets made - that is phenomenal," Davis said.
Most of the game, Davis will almost always be found standing and pacing on his sidelines. His high energy gets his team a morale boost, and if his players slack off, he makes sure they know it. Kermit Davis has a very strict defensive philosophy, and his players exemplified that tonight. MT forced Troy into 19 turnovers and a mediocre 28% in three-point shooting, something the Trojans live and die by.
When questions were brought up about the challenge ahead against Vanderbilt, Davis did not try to downplay the game. When playing together, Vanderbilt is one of the toughest teams in the nation to conquer. Playing in Memorial Gym, Vandy's home court, will only increase the difficulty of the game. Davis, despite the difficult task, showed no signs of fear.
"We know it is going to be difficult, but it is a tremendous opportunity and we are going to work through it," Davis said.
With the talent that Vanderbilt has, the Blue Raiders will need nothing less than a tremendous performance to best the Commodores.
The Stat Line:
Top performers for MT were Ray Cintron and LaRon Dendy. These two players have very different styles, but both stepped up when they were called upon. Cintron's three-point shooting streak vaulted the Raiders into the lead.
LeRon Dendy's post presence helped in maintaining and increasing the lead for MT. He never had any streaks like Cintron, but Dendy's balanced play secured the victory. Both Dendy and Cintron finished with 17 points.
Troy's top performers were Will Weathers, who led his team in scoring with 22 points. Weathers has been battling a bum ankle, but his leadership trumped his pain. Weathers has been a dominating force in the Sun Belt conference for a long time, and this game showed his prowess as a top guard in the SBC. Justin Wright and Steven Cunningham also contributed with 13 and eight points respectively for the Trojans.
The stat that every team would love to avoid is the Turnover line. Fortunately for the Blue Raiders, Troy was devastated by the detrimental stat. Middle Tennessee's defense forced the Trojans into 19 turnovers, and MT capitalized by scoring 20 points off those mistakes.
Defense wins championships, and MT has plenty of it. With a 9-0 conference record thus far, there is a stir around Murfreesboro about a possible conference championship and a tournament bid for MT basketball.
Saturday will show exactly what this team could be capable of.