"When you get outscored by 23 at the free throw line you're not going to win."
- Middle Tennessee head coach Kermit Davis
Middle Tennessee's recent rocky road hit another bump Thursday night as visiting South Alabama overcame a nine point second half deficit to top the Blue Raiders, 63-57.
The Jaguars took advantage of a 30 attempt disparity at the foul line to hand MT its fourth straight Sun Belt defeat.
In a physical battle, the Blue Raiders took a hard fought 26-23 lead into halftime and then went on an 8-2 run to start the second half.
But mounting foul trouble made it difficult for MT to maintain cohesion and the Jaguars slowly whittled the lead down before taking their first second half lead with 6:54 remaining.
In the final minutes, USA's Domonic Tilford and C.J. Garner hit big shots at the end of the shot clock to keep the Blue Raiders at arm's length.
MT's last gasp came when DeMario Williams missed a 3-pointer that could have cut the lead to two with 13 seconds remaining.
Even after South Alabama battled back to take the lead in the second half, the Blue Raiders were still in position to have a chance to win when they substituted Desmond Yates back in the game with 6:54 remaining. Carrying four fouls, Yates was quickly whistled for his fifth when he was called for a blocking foul against Tilford, a call the MT bench clearly took exception to. Yates went to the bench for good with more than six minutes remaining. It took the Blue Raiders two minutes to score their next basket and USA outscored MT 13-7 over the four minute span right after Yates fouled out.
F Desmond YatesClick Here to view this Link.-Yates had stretches of good offense at the start of each half, helping the Raiders make runs to open both the first and second halves. His foul trouble limited him to just 27 minutes though.
Honorable Mention: Montarrio Haddock-Haddock brought his usual energy and contribued three offensive rebounds but he missed some easy scoring opportunities and was hampered by fouls.
Season Star Count
STANDING OUT LIKE A SORE THUMB
MT head coach Kermit Davis would have gladly taken his chances at victory had he known in advance the Blue Raiders would pull down 16 offensive rebounds, make seven more field goals than South Alabama, only turn the ball over 10 times, and limit Jaguar star Domonic Tilford to just 2-of-8 shooting.
The Raiders accomplished all those things but still came up on the short end of the scoreboard because of the glaring free throw statistics, which drastically favored the Jaguars.
"You can say what you want to but the (key) number is 42-12 (at the foul line), and that's all you can say," Davis said. "It was 42-12 and at one time it was 35-9 before we started fouling, but give South Alabama credit. They got to the line and made some free throws."
In such a physical game around the rim especially, a lot of whistles are to be expected, but the Raiders were having fouls pile up at an enormous rate, as five different players finished the game with at least four fouls.
But to be as aggressive as MT was on the offensive glass and driving the ball to the goal, it puzzled Davis that his team only got a dozen free throw attempts.
"Usually when you have 16 offensive rebounds in college basketball it equates to more than 12 free throws because you're getting the ball and going right back up to the rim," Davis said ... "(USA) didn't have many offensive rebounds. We had 16, so you know your team is ready to play when you get 16 offensive rebounds, but every offensive rebound (USA) got led to a basket or fouls. Every offensive rebound we got, we missed probably 10 or 12 right there at the rim. We couldn't capitalize on our offensive rebounds and that was the difference, but when you get outscored by 23 on the free throw line you're not going to win."
WHERE IS NIGEL?
MT is at its best when Nigel Johnson is at his best, but the senior guard has struggled recently, particularly on the offensive end.
In his last three games, all MT losses, Johnson has shot just 3-of-24 from the floor and has only five assists.
Those struggles were particularly evident against the Jaguars, as Johnson managed just four points on abysmal shooting, and his head coach attributed that and the team's overall poor shooting (36.4 percent for the game) to a dip in confidence.
"I thought Nigel Johnson did a great job on Tilford but (Johnson) was 1-for-11 (shooting the basketball)," Davis said. "Every shot he took was wide open. Domonic Tilford would love to have those 11 shots. We had great shots ... I'd like to design a new offense but what we're doing is right offensively. We've lost some confidence and losing does that, but we're going to try like heck to bounce back on Saturday."
MT's chances of bouncing back will be greatly increased if Johnson can rediscover his earlier form, or even the form he displayed at the end of last year when the Raiders made a run to the Sun Belt championship game.
GREEN RESPONDS WITH QUALITY EFFORT
Demetrius Green was glued to the bench for the entire second half of Saturday's loss to North Texas, but the senior didn't hang his head.
He was back in the starting lineup on Thursday after a good week of practice and he played one of his better games of the season, driving the ball aggressively to the rim on his way to a 15 point, six rebound effort.
"Their bigs really don't hedge the ball so the guards had more of an opportunity to drive it to the basket more so we just tried to take advantage of it," Green said. "I felt like I made a little progress in practice (this week) but I've got to keep on pushing myself every day to get better."
Davis, who didn't play Green in the second half of the North Texas game due to what he felt what was some careless and nonchalant play on both ends, was very happy with the way Green bounced back Thursday.
"He struggled at the line. If he shoots the ball well at the line, he has almost 20 (points) and six rebounds. I thought he was much more aggressive tonight," Davis said.
Even in the midst of the lowest point of the season, Davis is intent on keeping the attitude in the locker room positive as the Blue Raiders try to rediscover their A game in time for tournament play.
"We're going to be upbeat," he said. "Nobody is feeling sorry for Kermit or (our players). We're going to get up tomorrow, have a short memory, and have a great attitude. We're going to be fine ... this time of the year, you've got to stay upbeat with your team and find positive things for your team and their energy."
Davis said he was encouraged by many of the things he saw in Thursday's game despite being very unsatisfied with the final score.
The situation MT is in now is somewhat similar to the situation the Raiders faced at the end of the 06-07 season. That year, MT encountered a late five game losing streak before winning the regular season finale and ultimately upsetting top seeded South Alabama to reach the Sun Belt Tournament semifinals.
Feb. 21: Middle Tennessee at Florida Atlantic, 6 p.m.