The Middle Tennessee men’s basketball team claimed the Sun Belt’s regular-season title on Saturday evening with a 72-59 victory over Florida Atlantic in front of a season-high crowd of 7,605 fans at Murphy Center. The Blue Raiders collected their program-record 24th victory and clinched the No. 1 seed for the upcoming conference tournament, riding LaRon Dendy’s game-high 20 points and 10 rebounds, his sixth double-double of the season.
At 24-4 overall and 13-1 in the Sun Belt, the Blue Raiders surpassed the previous single-season record of 23 wins, produced four times in program history, with the most recent coming in the 1988-89 season. MT also matched the program-mark for the most conference wins, set in the 2009-10 season.
The Blue Raiders earned their first No. 1 seed for the Sun Belt tournament and with it have an automatic bid to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). With a bye in the first round of the league tournament, MT will play March 4 at 6 p.m. CT.
Additionally, MT wrapped up the home portion of the schedule on a 13-game winning streak, the longest since MT won 14 spanning the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. The 14 home victories this year also tie the school’s regular-season record, set in 1973-74.
JT Sulton and Raymond Cintron also scored double-figures, with 11 and 10 points, respectively. Sulton scored nine of his 11 in the second half.
The Blue Raiders finished the contest shooting 49 percent and held the Owls (11-16, 7-7 SBC) to 34.8 percent from the field. MT also owned a 33-28 advantage on the boards and collected 34 points in the paint compared to Florida Atlantic’s 16.
A trio of Owls scored double-figures, led by Shavar Richardson’s 16 points. Dennis Mavin and Jordan McCoy had 10 apiece.
Dendy turned a near turnover into a rousing dunk to open the contest for MT, but early turnovers plagued the Blue Raiders as the Owls held a 7-4 advantage five minutes into the game. MT rallied back with a 9-2 run, getting production from four different Blue Raiders during the spurt, including a trey from Cintron.
The onslaught continued as the Blue Raiders stretched the run to an 18-4 mark, thanks in part to six more points from Dendy and a Kerry Hammonds triple. MT opened up an 11-point margin with 5:30 remaining in the first half, holding the Owls to two field goals over 10 minutes during the first stanza.
Free throws expanded MT’s lead to 29-14 with 3:17 to go, as Cintron and Sulton drained four straight for the 15-point cushion. Florida Atlantic, in the meantime, hit a nine-minute field goal drought, but managed to hit six free throws to stay within striking distance.
Alex Tucker finally broke the Owls’ drought with a layup at the 1:35 mark to work the deficit back to single digits, but Cintron answered with a 3-pointer to make it a 32-20 game with 27 seconds remaining before the break. Tucker closed out the half with a pair of free throws, as MT held a 32-22 halftime advantage.
The Owls inched back with back-to-back buckets to open the second half, pulling within six before Dendy cracked double-figures with a tip-in to put the lead back at eight. After Shawn Jones turnaround jumper, Dendy’s pair of free throws made it a double-figure lead once again for the Blue Raiders.
Marcos Knight continued the 12-0 run with a three-point play, taking a dish from Dendy and tossing in a layup then getting the roll on the free throw. James Gallman followed with a triple and Bruce Massey capped the run with his third bucket of the contest as MT build the lead to as many as 18 five minutes into the second stanza.
Florida Atlantic responded with an 8-2 spurt, capitalizing on free throws to cut the deficit back to 12.
Hammonds gave the Blue Raiders some momentum on the defensive end, translating a steal on an in-bounds pass into a three-point play to put MT back up by 17 with 10:39 left in the contest, but an 11-3 rally pulled the Owls within nine at the 7:33 mark.
A 3-pointer for Dennis Mavin made it an eight-point game, but Dendy’s alley-oop to Sulton and Massey’s inside pass to Sulton for the finish and free throw quickly made it a 63-50 MT lead.
The Owls worked it to 10 once again, but once again the Blue Raiders had the answer, this time coming in the form of two Sulton free throws and a breakaway jam for Knight. Massey’s pass from midcourt to a streaking Dendy for the slam provided the exclamation point, as the Blue Raiders finished out the 13-point win.
MT closes out the season with a pair of road games, beginning at ULM Thursday. The Blue Raiders and Warhawks square off at 7:30 p.m. CT. MT concludes the regular-season at WKU on Saturday with a 5 p.m. CT contest that will air on the Sun Belt Network.