The MTSU men’s basketball team started off the its first appearance in the NIT since 1988 with a 86-78 win over Marshall in the opening round of the tournament Tuesday night at the Murphy Center. Emotions were running high in arena since both teams knew one more loss ended the season.
“It sure was one of them,” MTSU head coach Kermit Davis said in the postgame press conference about being one of the most emotional games in the 10 seasons he has been at the helm of the Blue Raiders. “I think it was more emotional for our team, because of how the last week of the season went. I was real proud of our team, because they were devastated after the Sun Belt tournament. They came out this week and practiced hard.”
Also, the Blue Raiders were looking for its first postseason win since the 1989 NCAA tournament when it upset Florida State in the first round in Nashville. A year earlier when MTSU was last in the NIT, the Blue Raiders played three memorial games at the Glass House and it advanced to the quarterfinals after wins over SEC rivals Tennessee and Georgia, before falling to Boston College in that round.
“Its big time, we worked hard for it,” senior center LaRon Dendy said. “We practiced hard everyday and it showed in the game. When knew Marshall was one of the top rebounding teams in the country, and tonight we played well.” Dendy was the leading scorer for the Blue Raiders with 18 points.
In the first few minutes of the game, the Blue Raiders jumped out on an 8-0, and the suffocating defense held MU scoreless for the first four minutes of the game. The Thundering Herd fought back to cut the Blue Raider advantage to seven, 12-7. However, sophomore guard Kerry Hammonds nailed a wide open three-pointer from the corner at the 11:50 mark of the first half to bring the Blue Raider advantage back to eight. That is as close the Thundering Herd got during the rest of the half.
After MU cut the advantage to five to began the second half, 39-34, the Blue Raiders took control of the game, which included two big three-pointers by the team’s sharpshooter junior guard Raymond Cintron. Also, sophomore forward Shaun Jones had a string of scoring eight points in a row, including a couple of thunderous dunks. He finished with a season-best 15 points.
MTSU had a lead as large as 21 during the second half, but MU fought back to cut to five with 1:37 left in the game. However, the Blue Raiders got a thunderous dunk from junior forward JT Sulton and free throws from junior guard Marcos Knight and senior guard Jimmy Oden to end the scoring.
As for the Thundering Herd, who made the five and half hour trip from West Virginia, was coming off an impressive performance in last week’s Conference USA tournament in Memphis. MU won three games in a row, including a three-overtime thriller in the quarterfinals against Tulsa. It made it all the way to the championship, but it lost to the host Memphis, 83-57 on March 10. However, during the regular season, the C-USA runner up struggled on the road finishing with a mark of 5-8.
The Blue Raiders head to Knoxville to face the Volunteers. The date and time for that game is to be determined.