With the first matchup between Belmont and Middle Tennessee going to double overtime the rematch on Tuesday was expected to be just as tight. Sure enough the game didn't disappoint, with the Blue Raiders locking up the 65-62 win with a pair of blocked shots in the final 22 seconds. LaRon Dendy led the way for Middle Tennessee with 20 points, and the Blue Raiders haven't reached the ten-win mark in a season this fast since 1990-91. Belmont outscored Middle Tennessee 33-9 in points from beyond the arc but they couldn't get that 12th three-pointer they needed to take the lead or tie late, which is a testament to Kermit Davis' team.
"We are an athletic team, we're long around the rim," said Davis. "But the last two plays, to block perimeter shots, those were unbelievable competitive athletic plays because the way Belmont shot it tonight you just felt if they got a good clean look they were going to make it."
The Bruins really couldn't get much of anything going in the first half, shooting just 33.3% and turning the ball over eight times to go into the locker room down 34-25. On the other side Middle Tennessee executed efficiently on offense, assisting on 11 of their 13 made baskets and shooting 52.0% from the field. But as expected, Rick Byrd's team made a run thanks to their ability to knock down perimeter shots. Belmont made seven of twelve three-pointers and took their first lead since 2-0 with 10:01 remaining on a Kerron Johnson layup. But despite the Belmont run and poor foul shooting Middle Tennessee didn't fold, earning them the win to even the season at one victory apiece.
"We are 32-60 against them at the line," said Davis. "Marcos Knight, one of the toughest players I have ever coached, he missed three even though he felt good about them. LaRon had his struggles, but he steps up and makes some timely free throws."
While the focus of many has been Belmont's chances of earning an at-large bid should they not win the Atlantic Sun, there could be something special brewing in Murfreesboro. Middle Tennessee's now 10-2 on the season, and next Wednesday's game at Ole Miss is more than winnable for the Blue Raiders. But the free throw shooting has to improve if they're to be a championship team in the Sun Belt. But they rank second nationally in field goal percentage (53.2%) and the Blue Raiders have been solid defensively as well. With a three-pronged scoring attack leading the way, Middle Tennessee can have a special 2011-12.
"We understand what's ahead of us," remarked Davis. "Ten wins in the non-conference is a great feat, we are off to a great start, and gives us a chance to have a terrific year."
Other Notable Happenings
1. Florida Atlantic only has themselves to blame for their loss at Mississippi State.
Speaking of Sun Belt teams struggling to make free throws, there's the case of Mike Jarvis' FAU Owls, who made just seven of eighteen from the charity stripe in their 75-68 loss at Mississippi State. Raymond Taylor scored 20 points off the bench for the Owls but the fact that FAU made just two of eight from the foul line in the second half proved costly. By comparison Mississippi State made 17 of 22 from the line, taking advantage of the points many expect to be "free" the way winning teams should. Rodney Hood, who has to be considered one of the top freshmen in the SEC, scored 19 points and grabbed ten rebounds for the Bulldogs and Dee Bost led all scorers with 22 points, but the shot that can't be defended was the difference.
2. Could a dagger be the catalyst Jordan Taylor needs to get back on track?
After a Milwaukee basked with 1:10 remaining cut the Wisconsin lead to 55-52 there was little doubt who would take the big shot for the Badgers. Senior point guard Jordan Taylor, who was coming off of an 0-for-10 outing against UNLV and made just three of eleven two-pointers on Tuesday night, was going to be the guy no matter what. And as All-Americans do, Taylor came up big by knocking down a three from the top of the key to make the score 58-52 with 41 seconds to go. Jared Berggren led the way in the 60-54 win with 17 points and nine rebounds, but that shot may be just what the doctor ordered for Taylor with regards to getting back on track. He's shooting just 36% on the season, more than seven points below last season's mark (43.3%), but the road back begins with that first step.
3. A strong second half propels Villanova to a win over Boston University.
The first half of Villanova's game against Boston University and former VU assistant Joe Jones wasn't a pretty one, with the Wildcats shooting just 18.2% and trailing 26-23 at the half. The Wildcats missed their final 16 shots of the half, and frankly guys didn't look confident in what they were doing on that end of the floor. But whatever Jay Wright, or even the players themselves, said in the locker room at the break had a major effect as the Wildcats rolled to a 68-43 win. Villanova made 14 of 19 two-points shots in the second half and Dominic Cheek got things rolling with 11 points while the Terriers could never get going offensively (17 second-half points). Cheek may ultimately be the key for the Wildcats if they're to reach the NCAA Tournament, meaning that his percentages (38.8% FG, 28.8% 3PT) have to improve. Villanova's relying on a number of young players, be it in terms of games played or the importance of roles, so it's going to take some time. But the second half was a good sign of what Jay Wright's team could be capable of.
1. Washington will be without the services of center Aziz N'Diaye for the next 2-3 weeks due to a sprained knee. N'Diaye isn't much of an offensive presence but the Huskies will need to account for his team-best 8.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. Desmond Simmons figures to be the player most likely to see a jump in minutes, but Martin Bruenig and Shawn Kemp Jr. will likely be called upon as well.
2. Marquette has been hit hard by the injury bug of late, with Chris Otule (knee), Juan Anderson (shoulder) and Jamil Wilson (ankle) all suffering injuries over the last week or so. Wilson will be the first to return but Anderson will be down for a while and the severity of Otule's injury (suffered against Washington last week) still isn't known. That means more opportunties for Davante Gardner, who scored 14 points in Saturday's win over Green Bay.
3. After struggling in his first two games back from injury, the Chris Fouch many expected to see for Drexel may be back. Fouch followed up a 23-point performance against Princeton with 24 in the Dragons' 71-58 win over Niagara on Tuesday night.
4. After winning ten games all of last season, Wyoming's already reached that mark in their first season under Larry Shyatt. While a SOS that currently ranks 301st in the country has to be noted, it's also fair to point out that the Cowboys have improved their field goal percentage defense by nine percentage points from a season ago. Wyoming beat UC Irvine 58-48 Tuesday night.
5. Despite out-rebounding Point University 48-29 Alcorn State needed two overtimes to beat the new NAIA member 106-101, which had been competing at the NCCAA level prior to this season. Alcorn State is 2-7 on the season but have yet to defeat a Division I opponent. It could be a long year in Lorman.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Jaylen Bond (Texas)
The freshman put up 18 points (9-12 FG), 12 rebounds and two assists in the Longhorns' 93-40 pasting of Nicholls State.
2. G Rodney Hood (Mississippi State)
One of the top freshmen in the SEC thus far, Hood scored 19 points and grabbed ten rebounds in the Bulldogs' 75-68 win over Florida Atlantic.
3. G Marcus Jordan (UCF)
28 points and three assists in the Knights' 77-65 win over North Carolina A&T.