Middle Tennessee wins second straight C-USA title
By CHIP CIRILLO
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) If earning a national ranking for the first time in school history put extra pressure on Middle Tennessee, it doesn't show.
The No. 24 Blue Raiders posted their second straight double-digit win since cracking the Top 25 last week with an 82-64 victory over archrival Western Kentucky on Thursday night.
That gave Middle Tennessee its second consecutive Conference USA title in front of the season's biggest crowd (11,307) at the Murphy Center.
"It was electric," MTSU coach Kermit Davis said. "I've said it ever since we've been ranked -- and I don't say it boastfully, I just say it honestly - that we look and play and prepare like a Top 25 team. And everybody asks me the question, how are your guys going to handle it? The more success, the more motivation."
The Blue Raiders (24-5, 16-1), beat UAB by 25 points in their first game after getting ranked before adding an 18-point win over second-place Western Kentucky (22-8, 15-2).
Middle's Brandon Walters, a 6-foot-10 redshirt senior, recorded his third double-double of the season with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
"Brandon Walters is playing like an elite center in college basketball," Davis said. "When Brandon plays like that, we can play with a lot of people in college basketball."
Nick King, a leading candidate for C-USA Player of the Year, scored 18 points and had nine rebounds for the Blue Raiders.
"I feel like the bigger the crowd we have here, the more amped up we play," said King, an Alabama transfer. "Top 25 team, top 25 crowd. That's a great combination."
"I think the difference in their team has been Johnson in the last four or five weeks," WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. "He went from a non-starter to a starter. And a guy that gives them another shooter out there, another ballhandler, a guy who can make tough plays."
The Blue Raiders swept the regular-season series with the Hilltoppers, including a 66-62 win on Jan. 20. Middle Tennessee has won 13 of the last 15 against Western Kentucky.
Lamonte Bearden led the Hilltoppers with 24 points and Justin Johnson had 14.
The loss ended Western Kentucky's six-game winning streak.
The Hilltoppers shot at least 55 percent from the field in their previous five games, but they dropped to 44 percent against the Blue Raiders.
After a close first half, Middle Tennessee began to pull away early in the second half. The Hilltoppers never got closer than nine in the last 20 minutes.
Middle Tennessee shot 60 percent from the field during the first 20 minutes, including a 7-of-11 showing from 3-point range, to take a 43-34 halftime lead.
Several prominent bracketologists predict the Blue Raiders will earn a seed in the Nos. 9-12 range at the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
The Blue Raiders improved to 11-1 at home.
Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers, who upset then-No. 18 Purdue in November, were held to their lowest scoring output since a 66-62 loss to Middle on Jan. 20.
Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders look comfortable with their new-found ranking.
Johnson's 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer energized the near-sellout crowd and the Blue Raiders. "We knew it was a big shot," Bearden said. "That put them up nine."
BACK IN ACTION
Middle guard Tyrik Dixon, who missed the previous game due to concussion protocol, returned and played 12 minutes.
Western Kentucky visits Alabama-Birmingham in its regular-season finale Saturday.
Middle Tennessee hosts Marshall in its regular-season finale Saturday. Marshall handed Middle its only conference loss in January.
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Updated March 2, 2018