GAME NOTES: First place in the Conference USA race will be on the line as the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders take on the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs at the Thomas Assembly Center.
Both of these first-year members of the C-USA have made an immediate impression. The Blue Raiders are in sole possession of first place in the league standings at 11-2, while Louisiana Tech one game back in a four-way tie for second place with Southern Miss, Texas-El Paso and Tulsa. This will be the 10th meeting in history between these schools on the hardwood. LA Tech holds a 7-2 all-time series lead.
The Blue Raiders lost two of their first four C-USA games, but have collected nine straight wins since falling to Tulsa on Jan. 23. Coach Kermit Davis's team nearly had its winning streak snapped on Saturday when it visited the Cam Henderson Center for a bout with Marshall. Jaqawn Raymond saved the day as he connected on a game-winning 3-pointer with 19 seconds remaining, which lifted the Blue Raiders to a 21-7 overall record. Middle Tennessee has gone 19-2 in the month of February over the last three years, including 14 straight dating back to the 2011-12 campaign.
The Bulldogs are coming off of a 71-66 triumph over Old Dominion, which marked their fifth victory in six outings. LA Tech will now return home to the Thomas Assembly Center, where it has experienced only a single loss this season. Coach Michael White's squad used a strong showing at the charity stripe to overcome the Monarchs, sinking 28-of-34 free-throw attempts including eight straight over the final 50 seconds to come away with the five-point decision.
Middle Tennessee has outscored its opposition by an average of 9.8 ppg in C- USA action. The Blue Raiders had trouble versus the Thundering Herd in the first half as they were held to 37 percent efficiency from the floor. They improved to connect on 50 percent of their field goal attempts, including a 5- of-10 clip from beyond the arc in the second stanza. Raymond led all scorers with 17 points, while Neiko Hunter and Reggie Upshaw netted 10 points apiece. Middle Tennessee's leading scorer Shawn Jones (14.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.1 bpg), was held to six points, but he managed to tally eight rebounds and five blocks to make an impact. Hunter is MTSU's second option on the offensive end with 13.4 ppg and Kerry Hammonds is close behind at 12.7 ppg.
LaTech needed a collective effort to earn a win in Norfolk. Alex Hamilton finished with 20 points and six rebounds, while Chris Anderson posted 19 points. Kenyon McNeail added 14 points, Jaron Johnson had 10 points and Kenneth Smith handed out eight assists. Hamilton (14.9 ppg), Anderson (11.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and McNeail (10.7 ppg) have all stepped up their play offensively since leading scorer Raheem Appleby (16.1 ppg) went down with an ankle injury in January. Appleby returned to practice for the first time on Monday, but is not expected to make an appearance in Thursday's game.
Middle Tennessee will need to play much better than it did in Huntington to keep its winning streak alive. The Bulldogs, who rank eighth nationally in scoring at 83.2 ppg, are more than capable of keeping up with the Blue Raiders. The homecourt advantage will most likely be too much to overcome for the Blue Raiders.
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