Feb. 27, 2014
RUSTON - With first place in Conference USA on the line, Louisiana Tech came up with a defensive performance for the ages as they defeated Middle Tennessee, 55-39, on Thursday night in front of 5,349 fans for the last game this season inside the Thomas Assembly Center.
LA Tech (23-6, 11-3 C-USA) now finds itself in a four-way tie for first place with two regular season games remaining and it took record setting feats by Kenneth Smith, among others, to help achieve it.
At the front of the defense was Smith who broke the single game record with eight steals, which also gave him the single season record, and at the front of the offense he dished out nine assists to give him that single season record as well.
Tack on a blocking fest from Michale Kyser who rejected eight balls on the night, to go along with forcing 19 turnovers as team, and you have a perfect defensive mix that allowed a season-low in points by Middle Tennessee (21-8, 11-3 C-USA) who had sole possession but is now part of the four-way tie with Southern Miss and Tulsa.
"The defensive effort was one of the best we have had and it took every bit of energy that we had in the tank to defend that well against a really good team," said head coach Michael White. "We have a lot of respect for that team and program. Obviously, them being in first place in the league coming in and being as proficient as they are defensively, especially in the half court, they are very hard to score against. We put 100 percent of our focus into being as good as we could be defensively.
"Our press allowed us to get out in the open floor before their really good defense was set again. We scored just enough, played very well defensively. I was very proud of our guys. Our effort level was awesome and we needed it in the worst way because Middle Tennessee is a terrific team."
The highlights actually started before the ball was even tossed up by the referee for the tip. It started 20 minutes before that when four seniors - Kenyon McNeail, Cordarius Johnson, Jaron Johnson and Chris Anderson - were recognized for their last game donning the Bulldog uniform in the TAC.
The crowd was not short of ovations as Raheem Appleby, after 49 days of missing action with ligament damage in his left ankle, subbed in at the 9:14 mark in the first half to a huge applause.
All of these stars aligned, but the result was still in doubt with 10:50 to play in the game as the Blue Raiders tied it up, 32-32, on a jumper from Shawn Jones after being down by eight at halftime.
After Appleby missed his lone shot attempt of the game, McNeail hit a key three-pointer to reclaim the advantage for the `Dogs.
That three sparked a 12-0 run that included the record-setting steal by Speedy which turned into a rare dunk by the 6-foot-3-inch point guard and was capped off by the record-setting assist by Speedy on a bounce pass to J. Johnson who flushed home the two-handed slam.
"As hard as we played in the first half, I was concerned with our energy level early on in the second half and as a staff we were right. We came out and they really punched us in the mouth. Middle Tennessee came out and set the tone defensively and really offensively as they ran their sets to perfection. They went on a little run to tie the game and let us know they were here and not going anywhere.
"We took a time out and the next basket was a Kenyon McNeail three and I thought he hit a hard reverse layup that was really contested and he drove through contact a few times to get ourselves in the bonus. To answer with that run, that was the game."
The defense closed out the game by only allowing seven points in the final 10 minutes. It was much the same in the first half when they only allowed six points in the final 12 minutes before the break.
J. Johnson scored nine of the team's first 12 points and finished with a game-high 15. The only other player in double figures was Alex Hamilton who added 12.
After LA Tech went into halftime with a 27-19 lead thanks to a 9-2 run to end the first stanza, the Blue Raiders came out and set the tempo early in the second half with a 7-0 run of their own to get to within one with 16:34 left.
After four missed three-pointers, McNeail got his own rebound and drove through traffic for the layup. He netted the Bulldogs first eight points in the second stanza.
The defensive effort by MT was just as advertised as they forced an unusually high 18 turnovers by the Bulldogs. However, the Blue Raiders scored eight points off turnovers while the Bulldogs scored 25 off of their forced turnovers.
The best three-point shooting team in the league was also only able to connect on 2-of-12 from beyond the arc.
LA Tech finished the night 21-of-45 (46.7) from the field while MT shot just 17-of-48 (35.4).
Middle Tennessee had three different players register a team-high in points with eight - Neiko Hunter, Shawn Jones and Reggie Upshaw.
LA Tech finishes the regular season with two road games, starting with a trip to Birmingham, Ala. to face UAB on Sunday, March 2 at 3 p.m.
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