MILWAUKEE (AP) — Middle Tennessee took down another Big Ten team in the NCAA Tournament, though the latest victory didn’t really feel like an upset.
The Blue Raiders stood up to Minnesota’s rugged defense, then blew past the foul-prone Golden Gophers for an 81-72 victory on Thursday.
Middle Tennessee proved it was no one-year wonder after shocking Michigan State as a No. 15 seed last March.
“We think we belong on a national stage,” coach Kermit Davis said. “I knew we’d play well and we did so today.”
Reggie Upshaw scored 19 points and Giddy Potts added 15 for the Blue Raiders (31-4), who move on to face fourth-seeded Butler in the second round on Saturday.
No longer a mystery team in March, Middle Tennessee played like seasoned NCAA veterans with the way they held off the Gophers’ comeback attempt from a 17-point deficit in front of a loud and large contingent of Minnesota fans.
Upshaw, a senior captain, responded with seven straight points, including a 3-pointer and a reverse layup during a 7-3 run to help give Middle Tennessee a 10-point lead with 3:40 left.
“I don’t think so at all,” Davis said when asked if he would classify the win as an upset. “We have a lot of respect for Minnesota, but I think our record speaks for itself, and what we’ve done all year long.”
The Blue Raiders set a school record for victories and a Conference USA record with 17 league wins.
A season of redemption came to an end for fifth-seeded Minnesota (24-10), which bounced back from an eight-win season in 2015-16 to return to the NCAAs.
Amir Coffey had 17 points to lead Minnesota, while Dupree McBrayer added 16.
“We don’t believe in moral victories, but honestly I’m so proud of this team and this is probably one of the most historical Gopher teams,” center Reggie Lynch said.
Trailing 37-31 at halftime, Minnesota was still in relatively good shape given that Lynch played just 9 minutes because of foul trouble. The Gophers had just two first-half turnovers, but shot 38 percent from the field (10 of 26) in the period.
Middle Tennessee: Six-foot-10 forward Brandon Walters added punch off the bench in the first half with eight points, giving the versatile Blue Raiders another scoring threat. Potts said before practice on Wednesday that his team could keep up with any tempo, and the Blue Raiders proved it after taking advantage of Minnesota when Lynch was on the bench.
Minnesota: It was a bitter ending for a team that bounced back from a five-game losing streak at midseason. But the Gophers program is back on solid footing after returning to the NCAAs for the first time since 2013.
Coach Richard Pitino said it would take a few days to put the season into proper perspective. The Gophers will return nearly every key contributor except for senior Akeem Springs (9.5 points per game.)
“I know that going into next year … they raised expectations so quickly,” Pitino said. “And next year it’s going to be even more.”
The Gophers got in trouble after the 6-10 Lynch, the Big Ten defensive player of the year, got saddled with fouls. The athletic Blue Raiders attacked the lane with Lynch sidelined.
The foul trouble played right into Middle Tennessee’s plans. Upshaw and JaCorey Williams (13 points) are both 6-8 forwards with versatility.
“You look at how JaCorey and Reggie play, it’s really 17-18 feet downhill off the dribble,” Davis said. “We’ve had a lot of success whenever we’ve been able to spread the floor and drive the bigs.”
SWITCHING IT UP
Middle Tennessee alternated defenses between a 1-3-1 and 2-3 zones, and man to man, throwing off Minnesota just enough to slow down the Gophers. Guard Nate Mason finished with five points on 2-of-10 shooting, including 1 of 7 from 3-point range. Mason, who had four turnovers and three assists, was also slowed by a hip injury in the second half.
“It kind of threw their guards off. It definitely threw off Mason,” Upshaw said about the 1-3-1 look. “He’s used to coming down the court and creating mismatches on ball screens.”
Middle Tennessee faces No. 4 seed Butler in a South Region second-round game on Saturday at the Bradley Center.
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