MTSU's men leaned on their defense to get a much-needed Conference USA win Saturday against Southern Miss at Murphy Center.
The Blue Raiders (5-16, 1-7) didn't play a gracious host to the Southern Miss Golden Eagles (6-15, 2-6), snapping an 11-game losing streak by taking a thrilling 65-63 victory.
"That was a good win, and none of them are easy in league play," MTSU coach Nick McDevitt said. "I liked the way we had to win. We were able to withstand an offensive dry spell, and although your heartbeat races up a little more than it otherwise would, I liked the way we won the game."
Using their defense to provide offense was MTSU's calling card all night. They forced the Golden Eagles into 15 turnovers, 11 of them steals, leading to 19 points on the other end and 14 fast-break points.
On the back of six steals and eight first-half turnovers by Southern Miss, MTSU took a 26-25 lead into the halftime break, its first halftime advantage since its last win Dec. 3 against Columbia International.
Then, after a back-and-forth start to the second 20 minutes, the defense came up big again in what proved to be the most crucial stretch in the game.
Over a little more than two minutes starting at the 12:26 mark, the Blue Raiders forced the Golden Eagles into four turnovers, leading to a 9-0 MTSU run that turned a one-point lead into 10.
"I told our team that their effort was there today," McDevitt said. "Looking at Southern Miss, there are a lot of things that we do and they do that are very similar. ... So it's about who executes better and does it with more pace. I thought our guys did a lot of good things out there."
Southern Miss recovered late to make things interesting, erasing the lead when MTSU went cold from the field, but the Blue Raiders' Donovan Sims put the finishing touches on the win.
Sims came up with a clutch late defensive rebound and made four free throws in the last 21 seconds, finishing with 13 points, nine in the second half. He also led the defense with five steals.
His last trip to the line came with the game knotted at 63. After a 3-point prayer went in for Southern Miss, Sims and the Blue Raiders had 11 seconds left to get a win. He brought the ball down the floor with men flanked on both sides, and when the lane opened, he took his chance and created contact, drawing a foul with 1.5 showing on the clock.
The free throws were nothing but net.
"I put the first one up and knew it was going in, and the second one felt good, too," Sims said. "That felt good for my team.
"I saw four seconds on the clock and tried to seek contact with their bigs. The refs were calling it tight all game, so I knew in the time and situation of the game I'd get a foul."
Junior C.J. Jones was the high man in the scoring column for MTSU with 17 points, making seven of his 13 shots to go with five rebounds. Sophomore Jayce Johnson had eight points, eight rebounds and three steals, and senior Antonio Green had nine points.
The Blue Raiders will try to take the momentum on the road next week. They'll be at UTEP on Thursday before going to UTSA Saturday.