MTSU leaves door open but WKU can’t capitalize, falls on the road

Freshman forward Nigel Snipes fights for a ball and is kicked in the face Thursday during a game against MTSU at the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn. WKU lost 72-64.

Brad Stephens

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Middle Tennessee State did its best to keep WKU in the game on Thursday at the Murphy Center.

The Blue Raiders struggled all night at the foul line, missing critical second half free throws.

But the Toppers couldn’t take advantage of their chances and fell 72-64 for their fifth straight loss in the rivalry.

MTSU (22-4, 11-1 Sun Belt Conference) finished the game 17-of-37 from the foul line, wasting numerous opportunities to put WKU (8-16, 4-7) away in the second half.

The Toppers trailed by as many as 12 in the game’s final 20 minutes but whittled the margin all the way to 59-55 with 3:35 left.

“We didn’t play our best basketball but we competed,” Interim Head Coach Ray Harper said after the game. “…We had chances, we had opportunities, and I couldn’t be more proud of our guys.”

The Blue Raiders’ poor free throw shooting allowed WKU to stay close despite getting little from junior guard Jamal Crook.

The former Louisville Ballard High School star was coming off a 24-point, 9-of-10 shooting game in WKU’s 75-66 win over South Alabama on Saturday in Diddle Arena.

But on Thursday Crook finished with eight points on 3-of-12 shooting.

The Toppers’ point guard also had three turnovers and failed to record an assist.

“Coming into this game in the last two weeks, I thought (Crook) was the best point guard in our league,” MTSU Head Coach Kermit Davis said. “He can change sides so well around the mid-court line right to left, left to right, get inside, and I thought we did a good job for the most part trying to keep him out and make his shots tough.”

While Crook struggled on Thursday, Blue Raider center LeRon Dendy didn’t.

The Iowa State transfer finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds, career-highs in both categories.

Dendy had 19 points and 10 rebounds in the second half alone.

“I gave him too many angles,” said freshman forward George Fant, who recorded 12 points and a team-high 11 rebounds on Thursday. “I didn’t get over fast enough to wall up on him and gave him angles to the basket I shouldn’t have given up. He capitalized on them.”

A Dendy dunk and made jumper by MTSU guard Kerry Hammonds gave the Blue Raiders a 49-37 lead with 9:45 left, the largest lead for either side all game.

WKU stayed around however, getting a five-point burst from freshman forward Vinny Zollo to trim the Blue Raider lead to 53-45 with 7:38 left.

A hook shot and layup by junior center Teeng Akol cut that lead to 55-49 with 6:11 left, garnering a timeout from Davis.

“Akol, he’s long, he affected our team last year,” Davis said. “And Fant — he’s going to be a terrific player. He’s real physical for a freshman.”

The MTSU lead floated between six and eight for the next two minutes until Crook trimmed the lead to 59-55 with two free throws at the 3:35 mark.

Freshman guard T.J. Price then forced a steal and led a 3-on-2 Topper fast-break, but missed a layup that would’ve cut the Blue Raider lead to two.

Price, who finished with a team-high 14 points, fouled Hammonds on MTSU’s next possession.

But the Blue Raider freshman missed both, keeping the margin at four points.

“Just atrocious,” Davis said of MTSU’s 17-of-37 free throw shooting. “Tonight if we step up at the line and hit free throws, we’re not scrambling at the end like that.”

Freshman guard Derrick Gordon had two jump shots on WKU’s next trip with a chance to cut the lead to two, but missed them both.

Dendy hit one of his two free throws on MTSU’s next possession, earning a Bronx cheer from the Murphy Center crowd and pushing the lead to 60-55.

After Gordon missed a layup, the Blue Raiders got three looks at the rim and finally got a Dendy tip-in to stretch the lead to 62-55.

MTSU won the rebounding battle 51-44 on Thursday, including a whopping 21 offensive rebounds.

“We gave up 21 offensive rebounds, we must be better there,” Harper said.

MTSU finally started hitting its foul shots in the game’s final two minutes, especially guard Raymond Cintron, who finished 5-of-6 from the line and scored 11 points.

Then with 39 seconds left, Gordon was called for an intentional foul after going for a loose ball. Gordon and several other WKU players seemed perplexed by the call. 

“You’ll have to ask (the referees),” Harper said when asked about the intentional foul on Gordon. “I missed that one.”

Nontheless, the play sealed the win for MTSU.

WKU will stay on the road, traveling to Troy, Ala., for a meeting with Troy at 1 p.m. Saturday.

The Trojans beat the Toppers 67-65 in Diddle Arena on Jan. 7.

WKU will get one more crack at archrival MTSU on Feb. 25 in Diddle.

“We’ll learn from it,” Harper said of the loss. “Round One goes to Middle and we’ll see what happens Round Two.”