Middle Tennessee's record-breaking season came to an end in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament Tuesday as the Blue Raiders fell to Saint Mary's, 67-54.
Appearing in the big dance for the first time in 24 years, MT (28-6) appeared rattled by the pressure in the first half of the game, digging themselves into a hole with poor passing, poor shot selection and inconsistent defense. These factors doomed the Blue Raiders as they fell behind and just could not recover.
The Gaels (28-6), led by senior sensation Matthew Dellavedova, used multiple scoring runs in the opening frame to create separation while the Blue Raiders struggled from the field to the tune of just 32 percent shooting in the half.
Saint Mary's appeared comfortable in the moment, benefiting from their sixth straight trip to the postseason and their second straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
"It definitely helps that we have a little bit of experience in the tournament," Dellavedova said following the game.
While the Blue Raiders struggled to find a rhythm offensively throughout the contest, the Gaels were red hot from the field, shooting 45.7 percent from and a torrid 57.1 percent from behind the arc, behind a 5-for-7 performance from beyond the arc from Dellavedova, who led all scorers with 22 points.
"When he shoots like that, he may be the best point guard in college basketball," Middle Tennessee head coach Kermit Davis said after the game. "He'll make a NBA team."
Stephen Holt and Beau Levesque also added in 18 and 12 points, respectively, for the Gaels, who weathered a second half run by the Blue Raiders with clutch three-point shooting and timely stops on defense.
Marcos Knight did his best to keep the Middle Tennessee in the game, leading the Blue Raiders with 16 points. Despite getting 10 points from both Kerry Hammonds and Neiko Hunter, MT was unable to capitalize on opportunities and struggled to finish shots at the rim.
The Blue Raiders opened things up on offense in the second half, trimming the Gaels' lead to just three at the 12:36 mark, but Saint Mary's answered with their own run that put the game out of reach for MT.
For the game, the Blue Raiders shot 42 percent from the field on 22-of-52 shooting and, despite being aggressive in the lane, could not find their way to the free throw line.
The Gaels, however, did not have the same problem, as Saint Mary's outshot the Blue Raiders from the free throw line, 25-to-7.
The loss marked an end to a spectacular two-year run for Middle Tennessee, but head coach Kermit Davis remained positive about the future of his program after the game.
"We have a top 25 recruiting class coming in and some good players returning so we feel good about the future," Davis said.
Tonight the Blue Raiders feel the agony of defeat and dream of what might have been. Tomorrow, the sun will rise on a new era of Blue Raider basketball will begin as the program transitions to Conference USA in the offseason.
Their new conference home should bring a stronger conference RPI and more opportunities to prove that Middle Tennessee basketball is back and better than ever.