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Andrew Robinson

Middle Tennessee snapped a two-game losing streak when it knocked off Western last Monday in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

As the Toppers and Blue Raiders rolled in to Diddle Arena Saturday — the home team again with a two-game losing streak — Western failed to match, falling 84-73.

MTSU (10-10, 6-3 Sun Belt Conference) shot 26-of-48 for the game and allowed senior forward Desmond Yates to break out, scoring 28 points in 30 minutes. Junior forward Steffphon Pettigrew said there’s not much he could do about Yates, a Player of the Year candidate in the Sun Belt.

“He kind of got hot in the beginning,” Pettigrew said. “We can’t let a good player get hot because his confidence starts to build. He’s a good player, and you can’t let a good player build that confidence early on in a game.”

For the first time since 1977, MTSU won in Diddle, and it’s been since 1975 that the Blue Raiders completed a season sweep of the Toppers.

But more concerning for Head Coach Ken McDonald — in a game he declared a must-win — was that the Toppers’ flaws continue to expose themselves on both ends of the floor.

“Are we executing on defense? Are we executing on offense? Probably not,” McDonald said. “There’s still a lot of room for improvement, and we still have to keep focus on the little things that are hurting us and making us lose games.”

Western (11-8, 4-4 Sun Belt Conference) now trails MTSU, the Sun Belt’s East Division leader, by two games. The Toppers also lost to the Blue Raiders last Monday night.

MTSU broke out from a 39-38 advantage with 15:09 left in the second half and led by as many 17 points, that after the Blue Raiders racked up an 11-point lead in the first half.

The Toppers closed to within nine points with 2:34 to play, but Yates re-upped on the other end, again pushing the Blue Raiders’ advantage to double digits.

Although Western out-rebounded MTSU 35-22 and dominated second-chance point 21-0, senior guard A.J. Slaughter said there’s a lot to get out of a game where the opposition shoots 9-of-13 from three-point range.

“We’ve got to go back and learn from this tape,” Slaughter said. “Middle is really not a shooting team, but they were driving the ball well and they were shooting it well. I think when any team gets it going like that, it’s tough to guard them.”

Western opened the game with a 3-2 lead, but from there, the first half was all MTSU. Led by Desmond Yates’ 13 first-half points, the Blue Raiders opened up an 11-point lead with just over 10 minutes left.

But the Toppers—sitting on their first two-game conference losing streak since the 2004-2005 season—weren’t satisfied trailing double digits at home.

McDonald called a quick timeout at the 10:38 mark, and Western responded out of it with an 8-0 run to pull within three points of the lead.

Freshman guard Jamal Crook tied the game at 26-26, and a Pettigrew put-back gave the Toppers their second lead of the game with 1:39 to play. MTSU closed the half on a 5-0 run, entering the locker room up 33-30.

Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis said his team’s run to end the half was a big turning point in the game.

“That was kind of our deal at half,” Davis said. “We had withstood a run—we knew they were going to have it—we withstood that one, and we had to start the first four minutes (of the second half).”

Pettigrew’s 22 points led Western, and Slaughter tallied 20 points in all 40 minutes. Senior forward Jeremy Evans scored 10 points and added nine rebounds.

Junior guard Cliff Dixon reached double figures in scoring off the bench for the second straight game, going for 12 points in 14 minutes played.

Western returns to action at 7 p.m. Monday night, when it travels to take on Southern Illinois for a break in conference play. The Toppers only other non-conference contest comes on Feb. 9 against Houston.