A moral victory it wasn’t. It was more a lesson on how hard, how intense you have to play to win championships. Middle Tennessee’s veteran roster with 10 juniors and seniors has mastered it. The Blue Raiders’ 12th consecutive win came when they stepped to the free throw line time and time again and made their shots.
Middle Tennessee went 24 of 29 at the free throw line, including 10 for 10 in the final four minutes. UALR, which put together a furious rally in the final minutes, made just 12 of 19 free throws. The misses included three on front ends of 1 and 1s.
UALR falls 1 ½ games behind Arkansas State in the West Division standings. UALR’s road to a division championship and potentially a No. 2 seed in the Sun Belt Tournament is pretty simple. UALR needs to win its final four games (at FIU, at FAU, vs. ULL, vs. ASU) and have ASU lose at North Texas. Almost any other combination would see ASU claim the 2 seed.
Saturday's game was a tough, physical game in which the inconsistency of the officiated added to the way both teams approached it.
Middle Tennessee took control in the first half with UALR struggling to get any good looks at the basket. The Blue Raiders led 28-18 at halftime and stretched it to 44-29 with 10:01 left.
Then UALR’s intensity went through the roof. And the game changed. It started with junior Will Neighbour. His defensive pressure led to a turnover and a three-point play for junior Leroy Isler with 7:29 left.
A jumper by Neighbour followed by a steal that led to a layup by sophomore Ben Dillard cut the lead to 49-40. The Trojans made their move with 3:42 left when freshmen Josh Hagins and John Gillon hit back to back three-pointers. Gillon’s cut the lead to 54-48 with 3:10 left.
Isler missed a free throw that would have cut the lead to 6 with 2:03 left. But Neighbour snuck in the scored on a putback for a 56-51 score with 2 minutes remaining.
Gillon could have cut it to 3 after a Middle Tennessee turnover. But he made only 1 of 2 fre throws and the lead was 56-62.
Middle Tennessee continued to make free throw after free throw to maintain its lead. With 6 seconds left, Gillon made a free throw and then intentionally missed the second. The ball came out to freshman Kemy Osse who it a long three-pointer for a 64-61 score with 1.2 seconds left.
Middle Tennessee then closed it out with two free throws from Raymond Cintron.