MEN’S BASKETBALL: Sloppy play leads men to early tournament exit

Jay Lively

With his jersey pulled over his head and face buried in his hands, an emotional Mike Wells left Sunday’s game to a standing ovation as the final seconds of his season – and collegiate career – ticked off the clock.

It was a bittersweet farewell for the senior guard, who failed to win the Sun Belt Conference Tournament for the first time in his four years as a Hilltopper.

With the season on the line, Western was unable to capitalize on a late comeback effort as it lost 76-62 to Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament at Diddle Arena.

Wells hit a 3-pointer with 3 minutes 23 seconds left in the game, cutting the deficit to five. But poor shooting and costly mistakes down the stretch were too much to overcome for the Hilltoppers.

“We had some crucial turnovers in the second half,” coach Darrin Horn said.”You can’t make plays like that and expect to win a tough tournament game. The fact that we had 18 turnovers means we didn’t have guys that made good decisions and took care of the basketball.”

Western shot 38.5 percent from the field and 23.1 percent from behind the arc, where it made six of 26, accounting for half of its field goal attempts.

The Blue Raiders (17-11, 8-6 Sun Belt) were able to extend the Topper offense with an effective zone while limiting senior center Nigel Dixon’s touches on the inside with double teams.

Dixon, however, was dominant when he got the ball down low, finishing with 14 points on 6 of 7 shooting and a game-high 10 rebounds.

“There’s nobody like him in the country” Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said. “He’s the key to their team.

“At least we kept him to seven shots. Our biggest thing is we were trying to make him go out on the floor and guard, hoping fatigue would set in later in the game.”

The remaining two seniors were the only other Toppers to score in double figures as Wells led the team with 19 points, also grabbing nine rebounds, and senior forward Todor Pandov had a good showing in his final game with 11 points and four rebounds.

“What Mike Wells and Todor Pandov have done for this program is immeasurable,” Horn said. “You can’t measure what they’ve done in resurrecting our program. From that standpoint I’m really proud. That’s the most disappointing thing for me, is this was Mike and Todor’s last opportunity.”

Western (15-13, 8-6) started the game strong scoring 11 consecutive points midway through the first half to take a 20-10 lead over Middle Tennessee. But the Blue Raiders responded with a 16-2 run of their own and headed into halftime with a 37-27 lead.

The Toppers never seemed to find an offensive rhythm and were unable to get key defensive stops when the momentum began to shift in their favor.

“There’s a point in the first half when we (became) really stagnant and were standing around a lot,” Horn said “It starts with the point guard play and making sure we get into something. We didn’t get the shots or the movement we got earlier in half.”

Middle Tennessee won despite playing without its leading scorer, senior guard Mike Dean, who was injured in practice last week.

The last time Middle Tennessee State beat Western in Diddle was March 6, 1982 during the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.

“It’s been a challenging year,” Horn said. “We have had a lot adversity. All in all I’m proud of this team. They fought back and continued to improve and try to do the right things and bounced back everytime they faced adversity. That’s the mark of starting to build a program the way you want to do it.”

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