Middle Tennessee cruised to its sixth straight win Thursday night in 94-75 fashion over the visiting Rice Owls.
The Conference USA leading Blue Raiders (19-5, 11-1) went into the game as the heavy favorite against the 12th-place Owls (5-19, 2-9) and didn’t disappoint. They now lead the all-time series between the teams 6-2 and have never lost in four meetings at the Murphy Center.
“I thought until maybe the last four minutes our team had a really, really good pace offensively,” MT head coach Kermit Davis said. “The team we play on Saturday is a good team … so, we’re going to have to play well then.”
Maybe the biggest three points of the night were scored with 1:21 remaining, while the game was already out of reach.
Redshirt sophomore Chase Miller checked in to a round of applause from the crowd of 5,602 and immediately got a good look from the left wing. He smoothly knocked down the shot from distance to the chants of “Miller Time” from the Middle Tennessee faithful, the first three points of the crowd favorite’s career.
“I’m just thankful for my teammates; it’s awesome to have the support from them like I do,” Miller said. “Honestly, when I shot it, it felt good.”
Early on, it looked to be a close affair, but a big Middle Tennessee run to close the first half put the game out of reach.
Rice hit the 7:21 mark of the first half up 27-26 after hitting 11 of its first 19 shots from the field, but that’s when the stellar Blue Raider defense put its foot down.
The Owls hit just 1-of-10 shots the rest of the first half while MT hit 9-of-14, grabbing a lead and ballooning it to a 50-33 halftime advantage.
Redshirt senior Nick King and junior Antwain Johnson led the way in the 24-6 run, ending the first half with 13 and 12 points, respectively, but it was a team effort. Ten of the 11 Blue Raiders who saw the floor scored in the first half.
“We’re playing 11 guys for most halves … and that’s good that we have a deeper bench,” Davis said. “We decided about three or four weeks ago … that we had to get some of these guys in these games just for down the stretch this season and for next year.”
Middle Tennessee’s defense continued to put the clamps down on C-USA’s worst statistical offense after the break.
After the Owls managed to shoot just 41.4 percent in the first half, they hit only one of their first six shots after halftime. Rice, which is worst in the league in scoring (67.7 per game) and field-goal percentage (41.3), finished shooting 40 percent from the field and 24 percent from 3-point range.
The Blue Raiders went into the game second in the conference and 24th in the country allowing 65 points per game.
“In the first 10 minutes, we guarded as poorly as we’ve guarded all year long,” Davis said. “But, I thought we got our feet under us and ended the half 24-6, and from there until the last about five minutes we guarded really well.”
While MT’s defense held the Owls down, senior Giddy Potts iced the game.
He scored 19 of his game-high 22 points after halftime on 7-of-12 shooting and 5-of-9 from 3-point range and finished with eight rebounds to lead the team. He also became the seventh Blue Raider all-time to eclipse 1,500 points, now sitting at 1,515.
It was a nice bounce-back performance for Potts, who tied a season low with four points in Middle Tennessee’s most previous outing against Charlotte. He only played 13 minutes in that game because of an injury.
“Whenever I felt open, I shot the ball,” Potts said. “My leg felt great, my body felt good, and I just came out and hit some shots. My teammates just kept telling me to shoot and play good defense.”
Johnson finished with 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, while King had 15 points and six rebounds and junior James Hawthorne had 10 points. Sophomore Tyrik Dixon notched eight points to go with eight assists and two steals.
The Blue Raiders will look to extend their home winning streak to eight games on Saturday when the North Texas Mean Green make a trip to the Murphy Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 5 p.m