GAME NOTES: The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders continue their quest back to the NCAA Tournament as they tangle with the Tulsa Golden Hurricane in the semifinal round of the Conference USA Tournament at the Don Haskins Center.
Both of these schools were part of a four-way tie for first place in the C-USA standings. The winner of this matchup will advance to play one of the other first place finishers as Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech are set to meet in the second semifinal matchup on Friday.
Middle Tennessee is hoping to return to the Big Dance after being defeated by Saint Mary's in the First-Four round in Dayton in 2013, its final year as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. The Blue Raiders coasted to a 62-48 decision over Old Dominion in their C-USA Tournament debut on Thursday after they held the Monarchs to 32.1 percent efficiency from the floor, including a 4-of-15 clip from beyond the arc. Coach Kermit Davis' squad made good on 54.3 percent of its field-goal attempts and outrebounded ODU, 36-28.
Coach Danny Manning's Golden Hurricane notched their ninth victory in a row on Thursday as they completed a 70-49 rout of Tulane in the quarterfinal round. Tulsa continues to play stifling defense in the postseason as it limited the Green Wave to 33.3 percent shooting from the floor and just one make from inside the 3-point line over the final 20 minutes of play. The winning streak is the longest the program has experienced since it won 13 straight in the 1999-00 campaign. Tulsa is 2-3 in its previous five C-USA Championship semifinals games.
This will be just the second meeting in history between these schools on the hardwood. Tulsa won the regular season matchup versus, 58-53, at home on Jan. 23.
Senior forward Shawn Jones is the only Blue Raider to have started in all 31 games this season and paces the team with 14.3 ppg and 8.5 rpg. The 6-foot-8 C- USA Player of the Year only scored eight points versus ODU, but made 4-of-7 shots from the floor, grabbed 11 boards and blocked two shots in the win as well. Three seniors managed to score in double figures for Middle Tennessee, led by Neiko Hunter, who went 7-of-12 from the floor en route to 16 points. Kerry Hammonds and Tweety Knight added 11 points apiece. Hunter is the typically the team's second option on the offensive end with 13 ppg and Hammonds is close behind at 12.4 ppg. Knight fills up the stat sheet on a consistent basis with 7.1 ppg, 4.8 apg and 2.1 spg.
Over its last 14 games, Tulsa has limited its opposition to just 58.5 ppg on 36.6 percent efficiency from the floor. While the great defensive play has been a collective effort, sophomore guard James Woodard has been the focal point on the offensive end for the Golden Hurricane. Woodard has averages 20.3 ppg and seven rpg over his last three outings and sophomore forward Rashad Smith has posted 13 ppg on 48-of-82 shooting from the floor and 5.1 rpg over the span of his last 10 games. Woodard scored 18 of his game-high 24 points versus Tulane in the second half on Thursday. Smith chipped in 13 points and D'Andre Wright tallied 10 points. Tulsa shot 47 percent from the field in the game and enjoyed a 42-32 edge in total rebounds.
Although Middle Tennessee has a more impressive resume, it has not been as dominant away from home this season. Tulsa may not be as experienced as the Blue Raiders, but it has more momentum than any other school in the C-USA and plenty of talent. Manning is proving himself as one of the top young coaches in college basketball. A trip to the C-USA Championship game would be a huge achievement for the second-year coach.
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