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December 22, 2008
"This is a great way to head into the holidays."
The Blue Raiders swept three opponents to win the Basketball Travelers Tip-Off Tournament in Springfield (Mo.) in an environment very similar to what they will see at the Sun Belt Tournament in March.
Against the Bears, MT jumped out to a huge first half lead and fended off a couple of second half rallies from a shellshocked Missouri State team.
Desmond Yates led an offensive attack that scored on each of its first seven possessions, which helped MT build a 26-6 lead less than nine minutes into the game.
Middle Tennessee enjoyed a comfortable wire to wire win over Missouri State but the Bears showed early second half signs of a potential comeback. After whittling a 25 point deficit to 14 by halftime, Missouri State scored the first six points of the second half to close within eight and were still within that margin with 15:00 remaining. That is when the Blue Raiders went on a 7-0 spurt that put the game out of reach for the Bears. Yates hit a jumper, Montarrio Haddock recorded a three point play, and Calvin O'Neil hit a pair of free throws while the Bears went scoreless for nearly five minutes. MT's lead never went under double digits the rest of the game.
F Desmond Yates: The tournament MVP had another outstanding night by scoring 22 points on just 13 shots to lead MT's attack. Yates set the tone right from the beginning and overcame second half foul trouble to make a couple of key baskets that stopped Missouri State's comeback attempts.
G Nigel Johnson: Johnson had a team high seven assists in just 29 minutes of play. He was instrumental in the game's opening run by the Blue Raiders. By halftime he already had five assists in just 15 minutes of action. He also hit a 3-pointer in the opening minutes.
G Eric Allen-Allen showed flashes of his potential against Missouri State. He hit a 3-pointer and another long jumper and was a factor on the glass. Allen's two offensive rebounds both led to putback baskets.
Honorable Mention: Calvin O'Neil-O'Neil buried a 3-pointer and picked away three steals to help set the tone on both ends. He was one of three Blue Raiders to play more than 30 minutes.
Season Star Count
Yates (24) Green (14) Kanaskie (12) Haddock (8) Johnson (7) O'Neil (4) Allen (1) Avery (1)
MT's blitzkrieg attack to begin the game was as efficient an offensive display as you will ever see. Yes, the Blue Raiders were hot from the floor, but they were getting all the shots they wanted on nearly every possession. The offensive outburst early was more a product of terrific execution than just hot shooting.
Yates worked pick-and-rolls beautifully with Johnson and Kanaskie, the Blue Raiders played inside-outside to get good open looks from the perimeter, and they played almost 10 full minutes without a turnover.
The effect was Missouri State's home crowd never got into the game and the Blue Raiders forced the Bears to try to play from behind, a role for which they are not suited.
MT's defense against the Bears was almost just as impressive as its opening offense. The Blue Raiders forced 19 turnovers, which amounted to a turnover about one in every three possessions for Missouri State. Star guard Chris Cooks was hounded into seven turnovers by the stifling Blue Raider defense, which combined for 11 steals.
When the Bears weren't turning it over, they were having trouble getting good looks at the basket. They shot less than 40 percent in both halves and just 4-of-20 shots from behind the 3-point line.
It seems like a long time ago MT's players were leaving Belmont's Curb Event Center with dejected looks on their faces. Winning three games in three nights can change a lot for a college basketball team.
MT has not suddenly cured all of its ills, but to bounce back from a very tough two game losing streak to UT-Martin and Belmont with three straight wins away from home provides a good glimpse into the character of this team.
Not all of the news in Springfield was good. Antwaun Boyd could potentially miss the rest of the season after dislocating his shoulder Friday. Center Theryn Hudson played sparingly over the weekend due to lingering concerns about the health of his surgically repaired foot. But the injury woes are relieved somewhat by the consistent performances of the last three games. With conference play starting full tilt one week from Wednesday, this team badly needed a shift toward positive momentum.
The Blue Raiders got exactly what the doctor ordered.
Dec. 31: Middle Tennessee at North Texas, 4:00 p.m.