MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- LaRon Dendy scored 18 points and added 13 rebounds and Middle Tennessee defeated Marshall 86-78 in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament on Tuesday night.
The fourth-seeded Blue Raiders (26-6) advance to face No. 1 seed Tennessee in Knoxville in the second round.J.T. Sulton scored 16 points, including 14 in the first half. Shawn Jones added 15 points. The win was Middle Tennessee's first in the postseason since 1989.Middle Tennessee led by as many as 13 in the first half, but Marshall narrowed the deficit to 39-34 in the second half on two quick field goals by Nigel Spikes.The Blue Raiders opened up a lead as large as 21 points with 8:31 left in the game, but Marshall kept the pressure on until the final minute.The Herd narrowed the deficit to five points before a dunk by Sulton with 50.6 seconds put the game away for Middle Tennessee.Despite the pressure in the second half, Middle Tennessee never trailed."We stopped rebounding the ball and then we stopped getting back and they go downhill on you," Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said. "J.T.'s big bucket in transition was good, and finally we got some stops and chased some 50-50 balls."Damier Pitts led Marshall (21-14) with 19 points. Dennis Tinnon had 18 points and 11 rebounds.Both teams had hopes to play in the NCAA tournament in recent weeks, with Middle Tennessee winning the Sun Belt Conference regular season title by two games and Marshall reaching the Conference USA tournament final.Middle Tennessee's bid for an NCAA appearance ended with a 64-61 loss to ninth-seeded Arkansas State in the Sun Belt tournament. After a nine-day layoff since elimination, the Blue Raiders started out on an 8-0 lead on Marshall. The Thundering Herd didn't score a field goal for the first 3:42."They looked like a team that hadn't played in nine days," Marshall coach Tom Herrion said. "We looked like a team that played five games in seven days. Those are just facts. I was concerned about our level of energy and what we had left in the tank. They jumped us early and we played from behind."At the start of the game, Middle Tennessee's star player appeared to be out of sorts as well. Dendy started 1 of 4 from the field when Davis briefly pulled the Sun Belt Player of the Year early in the first half.Dendy finished the game shooting 7 of 16 from the field and scored 11 points in the second half."I felt I had to get more physical." Dendy said. "That's what Coach Davis told me at halftime. I was taking too many jump shots. He was right. I took it down low and it worked out for me."Middle Tennessee improved its home record to 15-1 at the Murphy Center with the only loss coming on Nov. 20 in double overtime against Atlantic Sun champion Belmont."We tried to leave our past in the past and move forward," Sulton said. "We had some good practice this week and it showed in the game."