– Middle Tennessee men's basketball put up a spectacular fight Saturday night in the Birmingham Jam, nearly erasing a 25-point deficit before falling by just six points to Auburn, 76-70.
The Blue Raiders got off to a slow start offensively at Legacy Arena, trailing 22-9 through nine minutes of play against a high-octane Tiger offense that came in averaging over 87 points per game.
was the lone bright spot early, scoring five of MT's first seven points and boasting a team-high 10 points at half. Potts finished with a season-high 19 points and added four steals on the defensive end of the floor.
Leading scorer Nick King
(24.3 points per game) was able to get into the action at the 9:44 mark on a fast break layup, but the Tigers then tallied five straight to stretch their lead out to 29-12, having made 11-of-19 attempts from the field so far.
"We kind of just lost our way early," senior guard Edward Simpson
said. "We weren't really executing and the biggest thing was rebounding and they kind of out-toughed us in that area. That gave us a big deficit to try to come back from."
The Blue Raiders began to clamp down defensively in the latter part of the second half, holding the Tigers to just 13 points in the final 8:14 before the break. MT didn't fare much better on the offensive end in that stretch, however, matching the Tigers' 13 points in that span to go into the locker room down 42-25.
Auburn shot 48.5 percent (16-of-33) in the first half while knocking down five 3-pointers while Middle Tennessee converted just 38.1 percent (8-of-21) from the floor. An uncharacteristic 16 turnovers in the first half contributed largely to the deficit as Auburn scored 14 points off turnovers.
"Our tough start had a lot to do with Auburn," head coach Kermit Davis
said. "They are a really good team and I thought they had more energy than we did. They just flat-out popped us in those first 20 minutes."
It was more of the same from Auburn to start the second half as they extended their lead to 25 at 53-28. Potts then went on a tear, scoring nine straight Blue Raider points in a 9-2 MT run that included four free throws from a double technical that saw Auburn's Malik Dunbar get ejected.
That sequence pulled Middle Tennessee within 18 and looked to begin a turnaround for the Blue Raiders. After an Auburn layup pushed its lead back to 20, back-to-back trifectas from Edward Simpson
and Antwain Johnson
quickly put the Blue Raiders back within 14 with 11:05 to play.
Simpson drilled another three just over two minutes later that cut the deficit to 12 and the comeback was on.
After an Auburn 3-pointer, MT reeled off a 9-0 run that included another Simpson trifecta as well as an old-fashioned 3-point play by Nick King
to bring the score to 63-55, the first single-digit deficit for the Blue Raiders in over 28 minutes of action.
Simpson's third triple in a matter of five minutes gave him a season-high nine points while he added three rebounds and three assists.
Unfortunately for Davis and his battling team, the 9-0 run concluded with just 3:50 left in the game and the Blue Raiders were unable to cut it any closer than five with 17 seconds left before succumbing by the final score of 76-70.
"We're not ever going to give up on any game no matter how big the deficit is," Simpson added. "We go into every game thinking we're going to win and we didn't come out and play like we wanted to in this one, but we'll bounce back and be just fine."
King finished with 12 points and seven rebounds on the night while Antwain Johnson
added 11 points and Brandon Walters
tallied eight points and six boards.
"We've got a lot of fight in us," Davis stated. "We really competed to the end and I knew we would do that. It's been a tough schedule with games at Florida Gulf Coast, at Vanderbilt, at home against Ole Miss, and this one against Auburn. Going 3-1 in that stretch there is a lot to be proud of. Now we've got to go back home, watch some tape, get a couple of good days of practice in and get ready to go to Hawaii."
Middle Tennessee returns home for just two days before catching a plane to Hawaii for its first trip to the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic. The Blue Raiders open the tournament against the Princeton Tigers on Friday, Dec. 22.