1. Growing up a college hoops junkie I’ve been aware of the pageantry and tradition of Western Kentucky basketball. I remember Courtney Lee leading a Sweet 16 run before running into Kevin Love and UCLA; AJ. Slaughter and Orlando Mendez-Valdez nearly going on another in 2009, and of course, the Ty Rogers buzzer-beater to upset fifth-seeded Drake in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. That’s why I was thrilled to have the opportunity to head up I-65 to cover this game. E.A. Diddle Arena far exceeded my expectations as a capacity crowd of 7,759 keep up the intensity from pregame to the final horn. It makes all the sense in the world why the Hilltoppers program has been successful for all of these years and has been able to attract high-level recruits/transfers from Kansas and West Virginia and a coach like Rick Stansbury who ran a successful program at Mississippi State for over a decade.
2. MTSU senior guard Giddy Potts picked up his second foul of the game with 8:20 left in the half. Conference USA’s second leading scorer and the Blue Raiders top man, Nick King would be tagged with his second a few seconds later at the 7:59 mark. Following the media timeout, King would return immediately to the game, while Potts stayed put on the bench. WKU went into a zone while Potts was on the bench, prompting Kermit Davis to insert Potts back into the game with 5:49. The pair luckily enough went without a foul for the rest of the half. King actually was able to find his offensive game with the two fouls, scoring 10 of his 12 first-half points with the pair of fouls.
3. Scoring was at a premium in the first half. Both teams came in ranked in the Top 60 of KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, MTSU at 34 and WKU at 55. The Hilltoppers felt the majority of the defensive pressure, in terms of its effect on the scoreboard. The Toppers went 8:28 without scoring from the field. During that time, MTSU went on a 14-3 run to grab a 27-20 lead before a Dwight Coleby dunk ended the drought with 1:51 to play before halftime. For the half, MTSU shot 44 percent from the field and 1 for 8 from three, while Western was held to 36 percent from the floor and was 0-for from long range.
4. Tempers flared early in the second half when Tyrik Dixon and Lamonte Bearden fought for a loose ball around midcourt. Dixon was charged with the foul but after hearing words from Bearden, Dixon shoved the Hilltopper guard, prompting both teams to come their teammate’s aide. The officials quickly stepped into the middle of the crowd and deescalated the situation as the emotion poured out from Potts and the crowd rained down insults and profanities. Both Dixon and Bearden were assessed technicals and remained in the game. From this point on, the Diddle Arena crowd was a powder keg ready to explode on every basket, foul and competitive glance.
5. A major development occurred right before the halfway mark of the second half when Potts picked up his fourth foul with 10:54 left in the game. Potts would return with 7:17 left with MTSU up 51-46. Pott came close to his fifth when he took a charge from Bearden with 5:40 remaining and the Blue Raiders up 53-48.
6. This was a physical game from the opening tip. Both teams were reluctant to give up any space on the defensive end to their opponent and were scratching and clawing for every rebound and loose ball. The altercation between Dixon and Bearden was only the tipping point of an already abrasive rivalry match. The two teams found themselves in the bonus with 9;35 remaining, after combining for 28 fouls in the first half.
7. Nick King was sensational again tonight for the Blue Raiders. The Alabama transfer seemingly responded to every Hilltoppers run and scored five quick points right after Potts picked up his fourth foul to keep momentum in the hands of MTSU. King scored 16 of his game-high 28 after halftime and continues to have an All-CUSA campaign and keep his name in the race for conference player of the year.
8. Western Kentucky chipped at the Middle Tennessee second half lead, which was as large as 10, all evening finally coming within a basket at 58-56 following a Justin Johnson jumper. King would respond on the other end to put the Blue Raider back up four, 60-56, only to have Johnson cut the lead back to two, 60-58.
9. Following an offensive rebound with 42 seconds remaining, King would have a chance to ice the game his driving layup fell off the rim only to fall into the hands of Brandon Walters for the putback slam, putting MTSU up 62-58 with just over 7 seconds left. Tavieon Hollingsworth kept WKU alive with his basket and one cutting the Blue Raider lead to 62-61 with 6.9 to go. Potts returned on the other end and knocked down a pair of free throws extending the lead back to 64-61 with 5.5 seconds left on the clock.
10. Davis opted to foul up three, forcing Bearden to miss the second of his two attempts. The Hilltoppers were unable to gather the rebound and Dixon nailed both free throws to clinch the road win 66-62. The win notches the Blue Raiders alongside the Hilltoppers and Old Dominion atop the Conference USA at 6-1.
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