KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – When it had a lead with five minutes to play, Middle Tennessee was 25-0 going into Monday’s NIT game against Tennessee.
At crunch time before 12,038 mostly partisan fans, the Blue Raiders showed they could also play from behind.
Middle Tennessee, which had lost nine straight to the Vols since beating them in the 1988 NIT, went on a remarkable 15-0 run over the final 7:08 and ended Tennessee’s season with a 71-64 victory in Thompson-Boling Arena.
“To make a 15-0 run is very difficult to do in this arena,” MTSU coach Kermit Davis said.
But, the Blue Raiders (27-6), a No. 4 seed, made it look downright easy.
“We got into a timeout and just talked about winning on the defensive end,” Davis said. “There were tons of possessions left. We started trapping the post and they probably missed a couple of shots that were open. We made late-game free throws and took advantage of every possession.
“Maybe we will cherish this in a month, but it is a quick turnaround. When we get on that bus, it has to be behind us.”
The Blue Raiders will host Minnesota in the third round on Wednesday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. The Gophers (21-14) thumped Miami (Fla.), 78-60.
All Tennessee can do is look back on a disappointing finish – a first-round loss to Ole Miss in the SEC tournament and Monday’s second round NIT setback to MTSU – that overshadowed a stretch run when they won eight of nine to put the Vols in the postseason conversation.
“It’s obviously tough,” said Vols senior guard Cameron Tatum, who ended his career having played in 138 games, second only to Wayne Chism’s 142 from 2007-10. “You never want to go out in a losing effort.”
Guard Bruce Massey led the Blue Raiders with 20 points and 10 rebounds – both game-high totals – while LaRon Dendy, an Iowa State transfer and the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, finished with 10 points and nine rebounds in 25 minutes of action due to foul trouble.
“My teammates told me to stay in attack mode all game,” Massey said, “but to be smart about it and pick my spots when to attack.”
With MTSU trailing 64-63, Massey drove the lane for a left-handed layup to put the Blue Raiders up 65-64 with 1:28 on the clock. At the 39.1-second mark, Massey dropped in a10-foot banked jumper to push the lead to 67-64.
Massey had an idea that jumper meant a lot to the Blue Raiders.
“We went up three,” he said. “We had guarded the 3-point line well all game. They weren’t, fortunately hitting many 3s and we knew we had a slight advantage.”
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said MTSU’s guards attacking the basket was a key factor in the Vols’ loss.
“It’s not disappointing (defensively) because you look down the stretch of games to see how teams won the game,” he said. “They won off the ball screen with their point guard attacking the rim.”
Tennessee, which had won nine straight home games and 13 of the last 14 while earning one of four NIT No. 1 seeds, got 17 points and seven rebounds from All-Southeastern Conference forward Jeronne Maymon, who didn’t start but played 29 minutes after nursing a bruised right knee for more than a week. He missed the team’s NIT-opening 65-51 win over Savannah State.
It was Maymon’s 14th consecutive double-figure performance.
“I felt good getting up and down the court,” said Maymon, who learned at Monday morning’s shootaround he would play against the Blue Raiders. “Everything went well. I was a step slow, but I felt really well out there.”
Jarnell Stokes added 15 points and five rebounds and Trae Golden had 14 points and eight assists for the Vols, who haven’t won consecutive NIT games since 1985 when a Don DeVoe-coached squad reached the semifinals in New York where it lost to Bobby Knight-coached Indiana.
Long-distance shot artist Skylar McBee, the Vols’ most effective 3-point weapon, missed all five of his shots behind the arc and went scoreless in the game.
McBee’s banked 3 sent the Tennessee-Ole Miss SEC tourney game into overtime, but the Rebels prevailed, 77-72, dashing any hopes Tennessee had at landing an NCAA tournament berth.
The Vols were 10-1 when McBee scored in double figures, but just 2-5 when he failed to score a point.
“We were out of our consistent flow offensively,” Martin said.
Tennessee (19-15) never led in the first half and trailed by 23-11 after an 8-0 spurt served notice that MTSU was ready to go ballin’.
Before the first half ended, Tennessee blitzed the Blue Raiders, 14-2, and tied the game at 25-25 on Josh Richardson’s fadeaway jumper with 2:58 left.
MTSU outscored the Vols 8-0 and worked itself into a 36-34 halftime lead.
After Massey drove the lane for a layup to start the second half, Tatum drilled a 3 from the right wing – the Vols’ only 3-pointer in the game – and Maymon hit a layup off a Golden assist to the orange and white its first lead at 39-37.
From a 45-45 deadlock, Stokes dunked and Maymon dropped in two free throws for a 49-45 advantage.
The scrappy Vols were up 58-50 after Yemi Makanjuola’s layup off another Golden assist – he dished out a game-high eight – with 9:28 remaining.
Tennessee’s cushion was still eight points at 64-56 when Jordan McRae made a fastbreak layup at the 7:09 mark following a sensational out-of-bounds flip-save by Tatum to keep the ball in play.
The crowd was rockin’ and the Blue Raiders were stumblin’.
Shockingly, that was the last sighting of Tennessee’s offense.
Massey, a 6-foot-3-inch, 195-pound guard from Germantown, Md., scored eight of MTSU’s game-changing 15 points in the closing minutes.
“I thought he (Massey) did a good job start to finish,” Martin said. “He’s not a scorer, but he had opportunities. He did a good job defensively, as well. That’s his games, a defensive stopper type of guy. He had two on-the-ball steals. I guess they felt he had an opportunity to go and make plays offensively, and he did that.”
After Massey’s barrage, McBee tried a couple of late 3s, but never found the range.
Tennessee finished 1-for-13 from 3-point distance, an unbelievable 7.7 percent for the game. Amazingly, that low percentage was a bump up from the 0.0 percent (0-for-5) for the Vols at halftime.
Tennessee was 19-of-30 from the free-throw line, but even in the Vols’ 14-2 run they missed five free tosses. MTSU made 20-of-28 free throws.
Against the solid MTSU defense, Tennessee made 22-of-58 shots for 37.9 percent from the field. The Blue Raiders, who knocked off Marshall – the Thundering Herd had the highest RPI rating (No. 44) of any team not in the NCAA tournament – last week for its first postseason win since 1989, hit 24-of-52 shots for 46.2 percent.
That was more than enough to keep the Blue Raiders on a roll.
“I want to keep on going,” said Dendy, a 6-9, 230-pound senior center from Greenville, S.C. “I feel like this team is special. You grow up watching Tennessee. Getting a victory over Tennessee, that’s big time.”
It was enough to bring some jubilant MTSU fans to joyful tears.
Middle Tennessee 71, Tennessee 64
Middle Tennessee State (27-6)
LaRon Dendy 4-8 1-5 10, J.T. Sulton 3-7 2-2 8, Bruce Massey 6-10 8-9 20, Marcos Knight 4-9 1-2 9, Raymond Cintron 0-4 4-4 4, James Gallman 2-2 1-2 7, Shawn Jones 2-5 2-34 6, Jimmy Oden 0-1 0-0 0, Torin Walker 0-1 0-0 0, Kerry Hammonds 3-4 1-1 7, Jacquez Rozier 0-1 0-0 0. Total: 24-52 20-28 71.
Jarnell Stokes 5-9 5-7 15, Trae Golden 4-9 6-10 14, Skylar McBee 0-7 0-0 0, Cameron Tatum 3-11 0-0 7, Jordan McRae 1-6 2-2 4, Yemi Makajuola 2-3 1-2 5, Josh Richardson 1-3 0-1 2, Jeronne Maymon 6-10 5-8 17. Total: 22-58 19-30 64.
Middle Tennessee 36 35 – 71
Tennessee 34 30 – 64
3-point goals: Middle Tennessee 3-11 (Dendy 1-3, Cintron 0-4, Gallman 2-2, Oden 0-1, Hammonds 0-1); Tennessee 1-13 (Stokes 0-1, Golden 0-1, McBee 0-5, Tatum 1-5, McRae 0-1).
Fouled out: Middle Tennessee – None; Tennessee – None.
Rebounds: Middle Tennessee 46 (Massey 10); Tennessee 30 (Maymon 7).
Assists: Middle Tennessee 12 (Massey 4); Tennessee 12 (Golden 8).
Total fouls: Middle Tennessee 24; Tennessee 20.
Technical fouls: Middle Tennessee – Team; Tennessee – None.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)