No. 12 Middle Tennessee State proves itself with win over No. 5 Minnesota

Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images
1 Comment

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Middle Tennessee State was just better.

That may seem obvious after the Blue Raiders beat Minnesota, 81-72, in the NCAA tournament’s first round, but it bears mentioning.

Conference USA’s best team was clearly superior to the Big Ten’s second-highest seeded team in the NCAA tournament.

It was evident, it was decisive and it was without a doubt. The Blue Raiders are the real deal.

I know our players don’t think it was an upset by any means,” Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said.

Neither did Las Vegas, which pegged the Blue Raiders as the betting favorite. Apparently, only the selection committee thought the difference between Middle Tennessee State and Minnesota was seven seed lines. Whatever the relative disparities in schedule and conference strengths, that was a mistake.

Middle Tennessee State was just better.

A 7-0 start to the game and a late run by the Gophers notwithstanding, the Blue Raiders controlled the style and substance of the game for nearly its entirety. They exerted their will and got their way at almost every turn.

Minnesota’s strength is its interior with Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy one of the best one-two shot blocking tandems in the country. Middle Tennessee State went right at them, putting both in precarious foul trouble throughout the game. The Blue Raiders were savvier and stronger, forcing Lynch and Murphy to play themselves out of the game at times.

It was the same story on the glass, where Middle Tennessee truly won the game. The Blue Raiders kept Minnesota to just four offensive rebounds while pulling down 11 themselves. Most times out, you’d expect the Big Ten team to be able to out-muscle, out-tough and out-athlete a Conference USA squad, but it was the exact opposite Thursday at the Bradley Center as Middle Tennessee State stronger and deeper.

“They’re a big, strong, physical team,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “We were getting tired, and they kept subbing and subbing and getting sharper as the game went on.”

Middle Tennessee State was just better.

This was no fluke or Cinderella story. This Blue Raiders team isn’t the one that shocked Michigan State last season. They didn’t need to shoot some outrageous percentage. They just needed to be themselves. That was plenty good enough.

“The only difference was last year we were a major underdog,” senior Reggie Upshaw said, “and this year everybody kind of had us either winning by 2 or losing by 2. Pretty much even matchup.

“We still kept the same mindset coming into the game. We just played our game, you know, we would be able to walk away with a win.”

Upshaw had a lot to do with it. The 6-foot-8 forward finished with 19 points and nine rebounds, but his contribution to winning went beyond numbers.

After trailing by as many as 17, the Gophers went on an 18-5 run and pulled within four on a three-point play from freshman Eric Curry. Seconds later, Upshaw responded with a 3-pointer to push the lead back to seven. After a Middle Tennessee State stop, Upshaw got another bucket, this one a layup to put the lead at nine. The Gophers scored on the next possession, but Upshaw got another bucket, keeping Minnesota far enough away that the Gophers could never close.

“He’s winning better than any player in the history of our school,” Davis said. “He made big shot, big play for the last two, three years.”

With players like Upshaw and a team like Middle Tennessee State, picking a 12 over a 5 is no upset. It’s chalk.

“When you blow the whistle, that team is a focused group, great practice team,” Davis said. “Today at game day practice right on point, and there was no doubt in their mind that they thought they were going to win the game.”

They were proved right. They were just better.