MURFREESBORO — Throughout Middle Tennessee State’s record-breaking season, center LaRon Dendy was a central figure in the Blue Raiders’ success.
Wednesday was no different.
With just seconds left in his college career, the senior stepped up and tried to make a play. Unfortunately, Dendy was pegged with a technical foul that all but sealed the Blue Raiders’ fate in a season-ending 78-72 loss to Minnesota in the quarterfinals of the NIT in front of a near capacity crowd of 10,521 at the Murphy Center.
While that last play may stick out in a game of many missed opportunities, MTSU coach Kermit Davis was quick to keep things in perspective and praise the Sun Belt Conference player of the year.
“LaRon Dendy brought our program a long way — I promise you that — in one year,” Davis said. “It was unbelievable what he did. I thanked him for it in the locker room. He was one of the most enjoyable guys I’ve ever had to coach.”
After a 3-pointer by Raymond Cintron cut the deficit to 74-72, Dendy stepped up at the baseline and prepared to make it difficult for Minnesota’s Rodney Williams to inbound the ball. Dendy reached across the end line and swiped the ball away from Williams — an automatic technical foul. Andre Hollins then hit four consecutive free throws to ice the victory and send the Golden Gophers (22-14) to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“I was playing hard defense and as I was waving, to get a deflection, he just drops the ball,” Dendy said. “The referee said I touched the ball.”
Williams had a different version of the story.
“I kind of had [the ball] in front of him and then I pulled it back,” Williams said. “He reached over and slapped the ball out of my hands.”
Davis did not see the play. He was working the officials to call a foul away from the ball on Cintron to put Elliott Eliason, a 40 percent free-throw shooter, on the foul line.
“Mike Nancy is a really good official. He is not going to call that [foul on Dendy] if he doesn’t have to,” Davis said. “It was a tough break.”
Well before that play, the Blue Raiders (27-7) failed to get stops. They led 32-28 at halftime — a good spot to be in considering they entered with a 25-1 record when leading at the break.
Hollins’ 3-pointer with 13:55 left put the Golden Gophers ahead to stay and sparked an 8-2 run. Neither team led by more than four up until that point but Minnesota began to take advantage of 13 offensive rebounds and 17 MTSU turnovers. The Gophers scored 16 second-chance points and 17 points off turnovers.
It resulted in the first home loss for the Blue Raiders since Nov. 20. They had won 13 straight and were 15-1 at the Murphy Center this season.
“They were a tougher team in the gym today,” guard Marcos Knight said.
“I thought they beat us to some loose balls,” Davis said. “And they just made some shots. Their length ... Hollins made some shots. The point guard [Austin Hollins] made some shots. It is a good offensive team.”
Minnesota scored 50 points after the break, shot 51.6 percent in the second half. and made 11 of 12 free throws in the final minute. Hollins, a Memphis native who had played in a state championship game at the Murphy Center, made all eight of his free throws in the last 56 seconds and finished with 24 points, one shy of his personal best. Williams also scored 24 as four Minnesota players scored in double figures.
Knight tied a career-high with 19 points. Cintron scored the team’s first eight points and finished with 15.
Dendy, an Iowa State transfer and the team’s leading scorer, had to work for his points, scoring nine of 11 after halftime. Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said the plan was to limit his touches. The 6-foot-9 Dendy also failed to attack the boards, grabbing just five rebounds in 34 minutes.
But he said his last college game wouldn’t sour his one year at MTSU. As he walked off the court, he was greeted by a standing ovation from the Blue Raider faithful who witnessed a program-record 27 wins, a Sun Belt Conference regular-season championship, just the second victory over in-state rival Tennessee and the first two postseason wins since 1989.
“It is frustrating but I’m not going to think about today; I’m going to think about this whole year,” Dendy said. “Coach [Kermit] Davis he brought me a long way as a player and as a person. Today … it happened. It’s just got to be out of my head.”