MURFREESBORO — For 94 feet, Virginia Commonwealth and Louisville can harass opposing offenses with the best of them.
At least that is the opinion of Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper, whose Hilltoppers suffered consecutive blowout losses to both in December.
But when the ball crosses the timeline, Harper says not many teams unleash a half-court defense more suffocating than Middle Tennessee State's.
“From the standpoint of a half-court defensive team I think they’re the best we’ve played,” Harper said. “I don’t think they can put the pressure on you full court that VCU and Louisville can. But at the same time I think they’re better if the game settles into a half-court game than either one of those guys.”
He’d be hard-pressed to find many who disagreed after Saturday’s performance. MTSU defended its way to a decisive 72-53 victory over the Hilltoppers in front of a national televised audience and at a raucous Murphy Center, which drew a season-high crowd of 10,105.
Increasing their stranglehold in the Sun Belt Conference, the Blue Raiders (18-4, 10-1) cruised to their seventh straight victory and 11th in 12 games. In a game they never trailed, defense set the tone and overwhelmed their archrival en route to their 24th straight regular-season victory at home.
The Hilltoppers shot just 39 percent (16 of 41) from the field. They also committed 18 turnovers — 12 in the first half — which MTSU turned into 17 points.
“A lot of that defense led to offense,” coach Kermit Davis said.
The defense also bailed out an offense, which temporarily went stale. After building an 11-point lead in the first half, the Blue Raiders led just 42-36 less than six minutes into the second half. Unhappy with his team’s play on the glass and careless fouling after allowing offensive rebounds, Davis called a timeout to reiterate aggressive, smart play on defense.
The Blue Raiders responded as Western Kentucky (11-11, 5-6) went scoreless for more than five minutes. MTSU scored 14 straight points for a commanding 61-39 lead with 6:55 left.
“I thought it was just defensive pressure,” Davis said. “I thought James Gallman gave us a big lift [off the bench] of just defending. His energy in the game was great for ball pressure. Bruce Massey was unbelievable. I mean just some of the 50-50 balls he got on offensive rebounds. We had a couple plays where there was a loose ball where blue shirts, a couple of them, were right on top of it to save possessions. That was a big part of creating that lead.”
Much of the annoyance came from MTSU’s first line of defense — the backcourt.
The guard play of Massey, Gallman, Marcos Knight, Tweety Knight and Raymond Cintron made it difficult for WKU to work the ball inside. The Hilltoppers found little success from the outside too. They made just four of 15 3-pointers as MTSU continued to clamp down from the perimeter. The Blue Raiders rank 13th in the country in 3-point defense (28.1 percent).
“We talk about it in every day in practice, our guards being the key to our defense,” Massey said. “With me and Tweety on the ball we know if we get into their point guard they can’t get into an offense. Getting steals is an advantage for us. It is our strong point, getting into transition and getting layups and dunks.”
Besides leading all scorers with 15 points, Massey, a senior point guard, tied a career-high with four steals. He matched season-bests with six assists and seven rebounds. In fact, guards accounted for 18 of the Blue Raiders’ 33 rebounds.
“Their guards are the strength of their team now — bottom line,” Harper said. “They have some pretty good post players. But their guards — that’s why they’re good.”
The Blue Raiders lead the league the Sun Belt in scoring defense (58.4 points per game) and field-goal percentage defense (40.5 percent). More than halfway through a 20-game league schedule, they own the Sun Belt’s best record and hold a two and half game lead in the East Division over South Alabama (10-8, 7-3). They appear well on their way to their third regular-season conference championship in four years.
Even more so, the Blue Raiders have a chance to make a case they’re better than last year’s record-setting team that won 27 games but just missed out on the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 1989.
“Like coach Davis tells us, every game we’ve got to go out and recreate our identity,” Marcos Knight said. “That’s defending, taking away first side [offense], rebounding and being really tough. That is something we hang our hats on.”