Let's get this out of the way first and foremost - Middle Tennessee State is LEGIT.
The Blue Raiders put together one of the strongest 40 minutes of basketball that Vanderbilt has faced this season, pushing the Commodores to the buzzer in an 84-77 loss Saturday afternoon in Memorial Gym. MTSU had needed a victory to make a major statement for the NCAA Tournament selection committee to review in March, but may have earned some major credibility even in defeat. Middle Tennessee scorched the Vandy defense all afternoon, using crisp passes to create open shots and connecting on 57.4 percent of their shots from the floor.
Vanderbilt responded with a superlative effort from their "big three." John Jenkins, Festus Ezeli, and Jeffery Taylor combined for 64 points and answered each time MTSU opened up a big lead. The Raiders led by as many as eight points in the first half and held a one point lead with under 2:30 left to play. Vanderbilt's seven-point margin of victory was their biggest lead of the night.
Middle Tennessee used fast breaks and strong passing to create open looks throughout the game. Center LaRon Dendy scored from all over the court to spark the Blue Raiders, leading the team with 22 points for the game. Guard Marcos Knight was the only MTSU player to shoot under 50 percent from the field in the contest.
However, Vanderbilt answered with interior baskets from Ezeli and Taylor and long-range shooting from Jenkins. Ezeli regained his stroke at the free throw line, going 11-13 and scoring 21 points in all. Jenkins used a mixture of threes (four of them) and drives (6-7 from inside the arc, including two massive layups late in the game) to lead the team with 26 points. Taylor had 17 to go with six rebounds.
Lance Goulbourne and Brad Tinsley made sure to make people notice that this team isn't just a three-man operation. Goulbourne had a key steal with under a minute to play and the team's nastiest dunk of the season on a monster put-back in the second half. Tinsley, who missed much of the contest due to foul trouble, came back strong, setting up Ezeli and Jenkins for an important layups that helped put this game away.
The 'Dores battled through a back-and-forth affair to record their fourth win of the season over a top 50 team. While casual fans may dismiss a close win over a Sun Belt squad, anyone who watched Saturday's game understands just how good this Middle Tennessee State team can be. The Blue Raiders are a strong-shooting, athletically balanced team that will give some unlucky opponents fits when March rolls around.
The win improved Vandy's record to 16-5. They'll be back in action Tuesday for a trip to Fayetteville against the 15-6 Arkansas Razorbacks. It'll be another stiff test for a team that is still scrapping to regain the confidence that the national media had in them when the season began.