With its back to the wall, Middle Tennessee fought back with a fury on Monday as the Blue Raiders took down Western Kentucky 47-46 at Murphy Center.
With two consecutive home losses over the weekend, MT desperately needed a win over its chief rival.
Playing with a noticeable sense of urgency, the Blue Raiders stifled the Hilltoppers with a smothering defense that allowed them to win despite a poor shooting night on the offensive end.
When it mattered most though, the Raiders did come up with a big shot.
After WKU had erased what had been a 37-24 deficit, the Blue Raiders found themselves trailing 46-44 in the final seconds. A 3-pointer by James Washington with 8.1 seconds remaining proved to be the game winner.
MT's defensive mastery was keyed by senior Calvin O'Neil, who hounded Hilltopper star A.J. Slaughter into a sub-par effort.
"Coach just told me to stay on top of him, fight through all the screens, keep him from the hole and make sure I was breathing down his back," O'Neil said of his work on Slaughter, who was limited to just 11 points on 3-of-8 shooting from the floor. "I got help from (James) Washington and (James) Gallman who helped off their guards and that was big. We have been working on it in practice ... in all types of drills."
Slaughter, who came into the game averaging 17 points per outing, was the focal point of MT's defensive efforts. The Sun Belt player of the year candidate certainly has the respect of MT coach Kermit Davis, who charged O'Neil with slowing him down while also determining that other players would have to beat the Blue Raiders.
"(Slaughter) is such a tough guard," Davis said. "He moves faster without the ball than anybody we play. He makes great cuts and Calvin was just on top of him. Even the baskets he got were real tough ... Calvin just chased him all night. We really played off of (WKU guard Anthony Sally) to try to give extra help to Slaughter when they penetrated the middle."
The win provides MT with a significant boost, not just because it was against the Hilltoppers but because the Raiders made winning plays in the final moments, a task that has evaded them at times this season.
"We were not going to lose," senior forward Desmond Yates said. "There was no way we were going to lose this game. Everybody just looked at each other and said we were going to stick together and not lose this game no matter what."
The games within the game
The game's final two plays put both coaching staffs to the test, but MT came out with the upper hand on both its final offensive play and WKU's last effort.
Trailing by two with less than 20 seconds to play, the Raiders ran a set play intended to get Yates an opportunity with plenty of floor to operate on, but it was a quick decision by Washington that led to the winning points.
"We cleared a side, what we call pick and pop for Boogie," Davis said. "We had Boogie set the ball screen and we cleared everybody on the side opposite of our bench and we were going to pop Boogie. We said if they switch - which they did to a big (player) against a small (player) - then we told (Washington) to measure him up and get to the rim or if you've got it, then rhythm shoot it and that's what he did ... it was a designed play and a great read by (Washington)."
"(WKU) backed off of (Washington)," Yates said of the Hilltoppers' defense of his ball screen. "The play was designed for me to screen and pop and clear the whole side for me, but when (Washington) came off the screen (the defender) went under so far ... and he took the shot and it was a great shot."
But the shot came with 8.1 seconds still on the clock and WKU had a final chance after advancing the ball to midcourt with six seconds remaining.
At that point, Davis made a tactical switch from how MT has defended last second plays in a pair of recent heartbreaking losses.
The result was a mismanaged ball by Slaughter at the top of the key and a wild final shot attempt by Sally that missed the entire basket.
"We've been in that position twice, at Arkansas State and the other night against FAU and we stayed in man (both times)," Davis said. "We switched tonight to our 1-3-1 trap and trapped Slaughter. Montarrio (Haddock) did a great job. They are so good off the dribble. We then trapped Sally on the wing and we executed it really well at the end."
The play began with Haddock deflecting the ball away from Slaughter just long enough to run precious seconds off the clock and force him to give the ball up in an unfavorable position.
"Montarrio did a great job at the top on Slaughter and got the ball out of his hand," Yates said.