MURFREESBORO — Middle Tennessee State wasn’t about to let Belmont escape with a win again.
So the Blue Raiders got defensive and smacked away the Bruins’ last-minute chances.
Marcos Knight and LaRon Dendy each blocked 3-pointers in the last 20 seconds to lift MTSU to a 65-62 victory on Tuesday night. The duo also combined for 30 points in front of 6,095 at the Murphy Center, who erupted and spilled onto the floor after Knight intercepted J.J. Mann’s full-court pass and dribbled out the final two seconds.
The Blue Raiders (10-2) snapped a four-game losing streak to Belmont (6-3), which edged MTSU in double overtime three weeks ago. In fact, three of the previous five matchups had to be settled in at least one extra period.
“It was sure nice to win one of the close ones against Belmont. We’ve been in a bunch of them lately,” MTSU coach Kermit Davis said. “Belmont will really test the mettle of your team.”
MTSU watched a 13-point second half lead slip away and turn into a five-point deficit. But the Blue Raiders hit shots when needed. They made their last four of the game and took a 63-62 lead on a JT Sulton layup with 1:34 left.
Missed free throws then kept them from icing the game. Trailing by two, Belmont’s Ian Clark launched a 3-pointer but Knight deflected it, grabbed the ball and drew a foul with 18 seconds to go. He missed both free throws, keeping the Bruins alive.
Mann tried to fire up a trey as well but the 6-foot-9 Dendy got a mitt on the ball for one of the team’s nine blocks — a season-high. Drew Hanlen grabbed the loose ball and took an off-balanced jumper in the corner that missed with two seconds left. Bruce Massey corralled the rebound and made one of two free throws as the Blue Raiders held on.
“Last game, they ran the same play,” Dendy said of Mann’s 3-point attempt. “So when I saw it happening, I was like ‘All right, I am definitely about to leave my man, after you set this screen because I know you are going to shoot it.’ I executed it perfectly.”
“To block perimeter shots, those are unbelievable, just competitive, athletic plays,” Davis said. “You know how they shot it [Tuesday] — 11 3s — if they get a good, clean look, you just think the chance is they are going to make them.”
Deep-range shooting pulled the Bruins, who had won six straight, back into the game. After making just 4-of-13 in the first half, they made seven of their first eight after halftime. Hanlen was 4-of-8, with three coming after the break. Kerron Johnson’s finger-roll layup in the lane with 10 minutes remaining gave Belmont a 50-49 lead — its first since 2-0. Brandon Baker’s 3-pointer with 5:12 to go gave Belmont its largest lead of the game, 59-54.
MTSU snapped out of its nearly 10-minute scoring drought from the field after that, with Sulton’s putback was the first of four straight MTSU baskets. He accounted for six of those points as his layup on a nifty one-handed pass from Dendy gave the Blue Raiders the lead for good.
Dendy had a game-high 20 points with nine rebounds. Sulton added 13 points and Knight chipped in 10 with a team-high three blocks. Hanlen had a season-high 16 points. Johnson added 15 and five assists. Clark and Baker each scored 11 points.
The Blue Raiders have won six of seven and haven’t marched out to 10 wins any faster in the last 21 years.
“They’re really good and I think they are capable of having the same kind of year we had a year ago,” said Belmont coach Rick Byrd, whose squad went 30-5 last season. “I see a lot of the same things. I see the depth. I see how hard they are playing. I see how they seem to like one another, get along, share the basketball, share the minutes. They don’t gripe and complain. And they are just good.”