When the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers took down the UAB Blazers to open up the Conference USA tournament, the remaining teams let out a collective sigh of relief. They didn’t have to contend with the regular season champion on their path towards the NCAA Tournament.
Despite the Blazers being out of the running for the tournament title, the road to the Big Dance wasn’t going to be easy.
On Saturday, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders found themselves squaring off against the Old Dominion Monarchs for the right to represent the conference in the field of 68. With two teams full of experience, the game was destined to be a closely contested affair, and it lived up to that very expectation.
Despite taking a five-point lead at half, the Monarchs weren’t able to hold onto the lead in the second half.
Middle Tennessee made a comeback, erasing Old Dominion’s lead with 11:01 to play, and Reggie Upshaw scored four points in the final minute to send the Blue Raiders back to the NCAA Tournament with the 55-53 win over the Old Dominion Monarchs.
All five starters for the Blue Raiders scored at least 9 points on the afternoon, and the group was responsible for 51 of the team’s 55 points in the game. Sophomore guard Giddy Potts scored a team-high 14 points on the afternoon, while Darnell Harris finished with 10 points and 4 rebounds.
Trey Freeman (17 points, 7 rebounds) and Aaron Bacote (15 points) led the way for the Monarchs in the loss.
Old Dominion took control of the game towards the end of the first half. Zoran Talley hit a layup with 1:04 on the clock to push the Monarchs’ lead to 6, at 28-22, and they would end up taking a five-point lead into the locker room.
Freeman would help the Monarchs push their lead to 7 early on in the second half, as his three pointer gave his team a 33-26 lead with 18:10 to play. Middle Tennessee continued to fight, and were rewarded for their hard work before the midway point of the half.
Jaqawn Raymond answered Freeman’s three with one of his own, and the comeback was on. After Potts cut the deficit to 1 with just over 14 minutes left in the game, Raymond completed the comeback and put the Blue Raiders ahead by 1, at 40-39, with 11:01 to play in the game.
Back and forth the teams would go down the stretch, trading the lead while not allowing their opponent to pull away.
Talley hit a jumper with 1:13 to play to put the Monarchs ahead by 2, at 53-51. Those were the last points that Old Dominion would score on the day. Upshaw got a tip-in to fall to tie the game at 53-all, then he hit two free throws with 2 seconds left to send the Blue Raiders back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.
Middle Tennessee fought back in the second half, and used every last second of the game to come away with the 55-53 win over the Old Dominion Monarchs for the Conference USA tournament title.
Reggie Upshaw, Jaqawn Raymond, and Perrin Buford each recorded 9 points in the win, none bigger than the 4 points that Upshaw scored in the closing minutes to ultimately send the Blue Raiders to the win.
Zoran Talley and Denzell Taylor chipped in with 6 points apiece for the Monarchs, while Brandan Stith added 5 points and 12 rebounds.
For the first time since 2013, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (24-9, 13-5) find themselves dancing in March. The party will continue through Selection Sunday, when they find out their first opponent and location for the contest.
The Old Dominion Monarchs (22-13, 12-6) fell just short in their attempt to advance to the NCAA Tournament. They had things under control in the first half, but failed to capitalize on an early spurt to open the second. Come Selection Sunday, they too will find out their fate for post-season play.