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"College basketball is guard oriented and we got really poor play on the perimeter tonight and I thought (WKU's) guards were terrific."
- Middle Tennessee head coach Kermit Davis
Western Kentucky blitzed Middle Tennessee with a tremendous first half performance and held off a spirited second half Blue Raider rally to win 68-49 at Murphy Center Saturday.
The Hilltoppers raced out to a 24 point first half lead and led 39-17 at halftime, but the MT rallied to cut the deficit to as little as four points on two occasions in the second half.
But WKU's Orlando Mendez-Valdez and A.J. Slaughter kept the Hilltoppers composed with steady ball handling and the Blue Raiders couldn't overcome heavy foul trouble.
Desmond Yates was whistled for his fifth foul less than four minutes into the second half, while Nigel Johnson and Demetrius Green fouled out later in the game.
MT outscored WKU 25-7 to open the second half and had the lead cut to 46-42 with 10:21 remaining. But the Blue Raiders only managed two points over the next four minutes and the Hilltoppers extended the lead back to double figures during that span. Slaughter started the stretch with a long 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock to quiet what was turning into a raucous home environment for the Raiders.
G Kevin KanaskieClick Here to view this Link.-It wasn't the senior night performance Kanaskie wanted, but he battled for a full 40 minutes and helped jumpstart MT's second half charge with the first five points of the final half.
Honorable Mention: Demetrius Green-Green fouled out and had a team high four turnovers, but he played with a high energy level and was MT's second leading rebounder in just 26 minutes.
Season Star Count
GUARD PLAY FALTERS AGAIN
Middle Tennessee's veteran laden backcourt was a prime reason why the Raiders were expected to contend for a conference championship in most preseason polls.
But of late, perimeter play has been the main culprit for the struggles that have led to a 5-8 conference record since an initial 5-0 start in Sun Belt play.
Against the Hilltoppers, WKU's duo of Orlando Mendez Valdez and A.J. Slaughter combined to hit 9-of-18 shots and score 32 points. The two standouts also helped steady the Hilltoppers when it seemed they were in danger of losing all of what had been at one time a 24 point lead.
MT's senior trio of Kevin Kanaskie, Nigel Johnson, and Demetrius Green again had a cumulative poor performance. The three combined for just 18 points on 7-of-20 shooting, just four assists and seven turnovers.
"We got beat tonight and you can't sugarcoat that," MT head coach Kermit Davis said. "We got beat by an arch rival and they got us good at home and we've got to be mature enough to take some challenges and get better ... at the end of the day Nigel Johnson and Demetrius Green have to play better and they just haven't."
YATES RELEGATED TO BENCH
In order to beat the top teams in the Sun Belt, Desmond Yates has to be a big factor for the Raiders on both ends of the floor.
Against WKU, he was barely a factor at all as he fouled out in just 16 minutes and was only able to attempt six shots.
He picked up three fouls in a span of two minutes in the first half and went to the bench for the final seven minutes of the half.
His stay on the floor in the second half was even shorter. He was called for his fourth with 18:37 left to go and then quickly got his fifth on an away from the ball foul at the 16:46 mark.
Some of the foul calls against Yates were vehemently debated by the Blue Raider bench, which was probably partly cause for Davis picking up a technical foul midway through the second half. Despite disagreeing with some of the calls that went against his star player, Davis said Yates has to be able to avoid the types of fouls he was often called for Saturday.
"For him to only get five or six shots in that kind of game, it's amazing to me," Davis said of Yates. "He fouled out on really some non-aggressive plays. It would have been better if he was going up for blocked shots or something like that ... we've got to have him play well."
Middle Tennessee's postseason positioning will be determined Sunday when North Texas and Denver face off in the final Sun Belt regular season game of the year.
Depending on the outcome of that game, MT could wind up as either the five seed or six seed in the upcoming Sun Belt Conference Tournament that begins Wednesday night at Murphy Center in a first round game.
But regardless of where the Raiders fall in the bracket, it won't matter if they don't find a way to play consistently better, as they showed signs of doing while sweeping a two game road trip to Florida Atlantic and Florida International.
"We'll play like heck on Wednesday and see what happens," Davis said. "Do I have a great feeling about our team (after tonight)? I don't, but what will make me feel better is good practices on Monday and Tuesday ... It starts with Kevin, Nigel, Duna, and Boogie. Those guys have got to be better. If we get poor play from them we won't be around very long and I'll be recruiting on Thursday. If they play better then we can make a deep run."
If MT gets the fifth seed, their likely first round opponent would be Arkansas State with a quarterfinal date likely waiting against North Texas if the Raiders advance to Hot Springs.
As a six seed, MT would likely face New Orleans in the first round with a quarterfinal game against three seed Troy if the Raiders advanced.
Mar. 4: Middle Tennessee vs. TBA-SBC First Round, 7 p.m.