published Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Wiedmer: MTSU keeps going as Tennessee Vols stall

  • photo
    Bruce Massey had 20 points and 10 rebounds and hit a go-ahead layup with 1:30 left to send Middle Tennessee to a 71-64 win over top-seeded Tennessee on Monday night in the second round of the NIT.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- The ball sailing out of bounds, Tennessee freshman forward Jarnell Stokes flicked it back in play, back toward Cam Tatum, who swiftly through a half-hook in the general direction of Jordan McRae, who drove the remaining 50 feet for a layup and an eight-point Big Orange lead on Middle Tennessee.

A mere 7:11 remained on the Thompson-Boling Arena clock. The home crowd was on its feet in full throat. The small Middle contingent among the crowd of 12,038 was blue in more ways than the color of their shirts and jackets.

Said Tatum late Monday night of that moment: "You never say it's over until the clock is all zeros, but I thought we were in control of the game."

Added McRae: "Everything was going our way. We just needed a few stops."

In other words, it was almost time to start spreading the news that UT was one win away from heading to the Big Apple for the National Invitation Tournament semifinals.

Trouble was, McRae's basket became the last points UT would score this season.

Ahead 64-56 at that moment -- one of the best individual moments of UT's season, a moment worthy of ESPN's "SportsCenter" -- the Vols never scored again while the Blue Raiders bucketed 15 points in the last 7 minutes, 11 seconds.

Thus did the Vols lose 71-64 to finish 19-15. Thus did MTSU post one of the biggest wins in school history to move on to an NIT quarterfinal at home Wednesday against Minnesota, which beat Miami.

"We didn't want to quit," said Middle guard Bruce Massey, whose game-high 20 points were a career best. "We might lose, but there was no quitting tonight."

Maybe the Big Orange Nation should have seen this coming. Certainly the UT team should have been prepared. The Blue Raiders entered this game with a 26-6 record, having lost only twice during a 16-game Sun Belt Conference regular season before being stunned by Arkansas State in their league tourney.

"We had a team meeting," Massey said. "LaRon [Dendy] called it. He asked if we wanted to go to the NIT if we didn't get an NCAA bid, because he didn't want the season to end that way. We decided to try and win the NIT."

Middle won its first-round game over Marshall last Tuesday on the same night the Vols were easily dispatching Savannah State.

When the Blue Raiders jumped ahead 23-11 with 8:37 to go in the opening half Monday, it appeared as if they just might have what it takes to win the NIT and become the nation's 69th best team.

But then the Vols fought back, pulling within two by halftime, then building an eight-point cushion on five occasions in the second half.

Yet even before the Big Chill at the finish, Middle seemed to seize momentum after a technical foul on Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis Jr. with 11:09 to go.

The Vols up by seven at the time, UT point guard Trae Golden hit one of two free throws to hike the lead to eight. But then UT turned it over. And Massey got a layup on the other end, and the UT offense never seemed in sync the rest of the night.

"When you have a coach who's into the game and wants to win, that picks you up," Massey said. "When he got that technical, he was going hard for us. It told us that we needed to pick it up, and that's what we did."

It had been such a long time since they had done anything against these Vols. Heading into Monday night, MTSU had never won in Knoxville, was 0-5 against the Vols under Davis, had lost by 30 to the Big Orange the last time they'd met in November of 2010.

But the Raiders had won at home against the Vols in the 1985 NIT.

"Everywhere we went [on campus], the students were saying, 'Beat Tennessee,'" Dendy said. "We knew if we stopped them from getting second chances and executed our offense, we would win the game."

To that end, everything worked to perfection. Middle outrebounded the Vols, 46-30. UT was 1-of-13 on 3-pointers. Only twice all season had Tennessee been that inept from afar, hitting no triples against Duke and just one at Vanderbilt. Seven times this season the Vols hit 10 or more 3s.

"Fortunately, they weren't hitting them tonight," Massey said with a small smile.

And so Cuonzo Martin's first season as UT's head coach ended a few games sooner than he'd like, but a few games longer than almost anyone expected at season's dawn.

"As long as you play hard and play for each other, anything is possible," Tatum said. "Maybe we didn't get as far as we wanted, but we did a whole lot better than 11th in the SEC, which was where we were picked to finish."

Indeed they did.

And Middle, for all it has accomplished, still wishes it had gotten an NCAA tournament bid.

"I wouldn't say it's quite as good as being in the NCAA tournament," said a beaming Davis. "But it's a pretty good feeling. It's a really good feeling."

Winning in March when a loss ends your season always is.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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