Blue Raiders' depth on display vs. Vanderbilt
DEC 21, 2012 9:44p ET
But beating Vanderbilt 56-52 here Friday night at Bridgestone Arena for its second win this season and fourth in the last two years over a Southeastern Conference opponent only cemented the notion for the Blue Raiders (9-3), the preseason favorites to win the Sun Belt Conference.
“It just speaks volumes for the strides that we have made with our program,” MTSU coach Kermit Davis said of beating Vanderbilt on the heels of knocking off Ole Miss earlier this season. “ … We think we have high-major players on our team. We have high-major character.
“I think our team is built from a physical standpoint to be competitive with those teams.”
Sporting the nation’s second-most experienced team with 10 of the top 12 scorers returning from a 27-win squad, MTSU used that depth to its advantage in erasing a nine-point deficit in the second half with a 16-3 run to close the game.
“When we play an SEC team, it’s like playing any other team,” said junior guard Bruce Massey, who led MTSU with 17 points. Junior swingman Kerry Hammonds added 11 points, including a key steal and bucket late in the game from Commodores guard Kedron Johnson.
“There is no game bigger than another one,” Massey added. “We can play with a lot of teams.”
MTSU is pointing to this season for yet another breakthrough. The Blue Raiders felt they were snubbed last season when they didn’t receive an NCAA Tournament at-large invitation after not winning the conference tourney.
But they took their invitation to the NIT seriously, beating Marshall at home and Tennessee on the road before falling to Minnesota in the quarterfinal round. And although they lost Sun Belt player of the year LaRon Dendy to graduation, MTSU feels it still have enough weapons and has advanced far enough to be recognized as one of the nation’s better mid-majors.
“I don’t think that you ever get validated,” said Davis, the son of former Mississippi State head coach Kermit Davis Sr. “We have so much work to do as a team to get so much better. But it sure is going to be a merrier Christmas, that’s for sure.”
Conversely, Vanderbilt (5-5) fields one of the youngest teams in the nation with no seniors and two juniors. Gone from last year’s SEC tournament championship team are the top seven scorers, including NBA draft picks Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor.
Johnson, a talented and promising sophomore, has been thrust into a leadership role after playing key minutes late last season as a true freshman. With a game-high 25 points, he was the only Commodore to score in double figures.
“I know how to coach guys that are learning on the job,” Commodores coach Kevin Stallings said of his young team that had a three-game winning streak snapped. “It takes more patience than I’m blessed with sometimes. But again, we’re 5-5, and I really enjoy this team.
“ … They try hard every day. They try to do what we say ever day. I don’t have to pull energy. I don’t have to pull effort. I don’t have to pull attitude.”
The game was the fifth and final game in a recent series between Vanderbilt and MTSU, which is situated in neighboring Murfreesboro. The Commodores had won the previous four, including a highly-competitive game last season at Vandy’s Memorial Gym. The game was a home game for MTSU at Bridgestone Arena, and most of the 8,307 in attendance reflected it.
The Blue Raiders raced to an early seven-point lead, going up 12-5 just five minutes into the game following a pair of free throws by Massey and a traditional 3-point play by senior guard Marcos Knight.
But the Commodores went on a 12-0 run as MTSU went more than seven minutes without scoring. While Vandy built its lead, Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis was whistled with a technical foul for arguing a foul call with 8:56 remaining and MTSU down 17-12.
That seemed to ignite MTSU, however. From there, the Blue Raiders went on a 15-7 run of their own, thanks in large part to eight points from junior swingman Kerry Hammonds, who canned two 3-pointers and made two free throws during the run that netted MTSU a 27-24 at the last media timeout of the halftime with 3:32 to play.
From there, the lead changed hands three times before the teams went to intermission tied at 31-31. Massey had 11 points at halftime; Johnson had 15 to lead Vandy.
The Commodores steadily build a lead in the second half, topping out at 49-40 on a Johnson jumper with 9:49 to play. But from there, Vandy could manage only three points, getting a field goal from Johnson and a lone free throw from freshman guard Kevin Bright.
“We just got a little individualistic late in the game,” Stallings said. “We didn’t stay with what got us the nine-point lead. And I think that’s where the inexperience showed up.”
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