CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Almost.
It’s a word that has defined – maybe even haunted — much of Charlotte’s season. The 49ers have seen challenge after challenge this year, with another happening Saturday afternoon in shootaround, and another still coming just before the half of Saturday night’s contest with Conference USA leader Middle Tennessee.
The Halton Arena scoreboard told one story: Middle Tennessee got a double-double from forward Nick King and held off a late challenge from Charlotte, emerging with a 78-73 victory before 4,078 fans.
Interim Charlotte coach Houston Fancher told another in his postgame remarks to the media. He even took a bit of an issue with the story told by the scoreboard.
“I thought they really fought and answered the bell. I’m really proud of what they did,” said Fancher of his team. “I coached a bunch of winners tonight. They didn’t win on the scoreboard, but I coached a bunch of winners tonight.”
The 49ers’ day got off to a crushing start, as redshirt freshman guard Ryan Murphy broke his foot in pregame shootaround. Murphy, who had scored 51 points in his last three games, including a 27-point outing against Old Dominion last Saturday, was on crutches for the game, but seemed in good spirits.
Despite missing Murphy in the lineup, the 49ers went toe-to-toe with the visiting Blue Raiders for much of the first half. The clubs traded the lead back and forth for much of the first 12 minutes of the contest, with a Jailan Haslem layup cutting the visitors’ lead to one at 21-20. Middle Tennessee (18-5, 10-1 Conference USA) then stepped on the gas a bit, going on a 10-2 surge that extended the Blue Raider lead to nine. The lead was squeezed to as few as five, before Middle used an Antwain Johnson triple to go back up by 12. A Luka Vasic three cut into the advantage just a bit, with the Blue Raiders taking a 42-33 margin to the locker room at the half.
Just before the half, however, an already-thin Charlotte roster suffered another blow.
49er guard Andrien White was inadvertently struck in the head during an offensive possession, and was forced to leave the game on the next trip down the floor. White was evaluated as part of the concussion protocol, and though he returned to the bench, was held out of the remainder of the game. No further update was provided on White’s status after the contest.
Charlotte (5-16, 1-9) knocked down back-to-back buckets on its first two possessions of the second half, knocking the Middle Tennessee lead down to seven. The Blue Raiders again pulled away, pushing the lead to 12 at 68-56 on an Antwain Johnson jumper with 7:39 to play. The game could have – and maybe should have – been over at that point.
Somebody forgot to fill in Charlotte, though.
“When we were faced against the best team in the league who had just made a run on us and put it up 12, we could have turned and ran, and lost by 20 or 24, and they doubled up on us, but we didn’t,” said Fancher.
That lead went from 12, to 10, then eventually all the way to five. Johnson splashed a triple to provide a brief respite from Charlotte’s rise from the canvas, but the 49ers whittled the lead back down to three. Tyrik Dixon then knocked down a triple to extend the margin back to six, but a Najee Garvin three-point play again returned the distance to one possession. Charlotte called its final timeout after the Garvin conversion, then chose to defend Middle’s next possession.
The 49ers forced a missed jumper from King, at which point they raced down the floor, almost guided by the crescendo of the crowd, with a chance to tie. Charlotte guard Jon Davis pulled up from long distance with just under nine seconds to play, and his final shot fell short, despite appearing online. The 49ers then fouled the Blue Raiders and sent King to the line, where his two free throws provided the final margin.
Davis, who finished with 20 points after scoring just five in the opening half, addressed with the media after the game the confusion around the final shot.
“Yeah, that was my fault. I had glanced up at it (the clock), and I had read it, and I thought there was way less time than there actually was,” said Davis.
“We got the ball with an opportunity to come down and tie the game with a three, (then) Jon shoots an ill-fated three there where he thought he had less time on the clock than he did,” added Fancher. “Everybody knows, we’re nowhere without this guy. What he does on the floor for us is irreplaceable.”
King scored 24 points and snagged 12 boards, despite going just 9-for-25 from the floor. Johnson knocked down 10-of-15 tries (3-of-5 from distance) to finish with 23, while Dixon added 10. Middle Tennessee shot 50.8 percent (32-for-63) from the field, and made all seven of its free throw tries.
Davis’ 20 led the 49ers, with five of his nine second-half tries finding the net. Garvin added 17. Forward Austin Ajukwa, who joined Davis as 49ers playing the entire contest, notched 12 points and seven boards. Charlotte connected on 53.1 percent of its shots (26-for-49) from the field.
Middle Tennessee returns home to the Murphy Center Thursday to take on C-USA foe Rice. That game is slated for a 7:30 (Eastern) tip. Charlotte travels next to Ruston, La. to face Louisiana Tech. That game is scheduled to begin at 8:00 (Eastern) Thursday night.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE 78, CHARLOTTE 73
MIDDLE TENNESSEE (18-5, 10-1 CONFERENCE USA): Walters 3-4 0-0 6, King 9-25 5-5 24, Dixon 4-5 0-0 10, Johnson 10-15 0-0 23, Potts 1-3 2-2 4, Sims 0-0 0-0 0, Hawthorne 1-2 0-0 2, Simpson 0-1 0-0 0, Shelton-Szmidt 1-1 0-0 3, Simmons 0-2 0-0 0, Gamble 3-5 0-0 6. Totals 32-63 7-7 78.
CHARLOTTE (5-16, 1-9): Garvin 7-12 3-5 17, Haslem 3-3 2-2 8, White 3-6 1-2 9, Davis 7-14 3-6 20, Ajukwa 4-10 3-3 12, McGill 0-0 0-0 0, Thomas 1-1 0-0 2, Vasic 1-3 2-3 5. Totals 26-49 14-21 73.
Halftime — MT 42-33. 3-Point Goals—MT 7-15 (King 1-3, Dixon 2-2, Johnson 3-3, Potts 0-2, Hawthorne 0-1, Simpson 0-1, Shelton-Szmidt 1-1), Charlotte 7-21 (White 2-4, Davis 3-9, Ajukwa 1-5, Vasic 1-2). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — MT 37 (King 12), Charlotte 21 (Ajukwa 7). Assists — MT 15 (King/Dixon/Johnson 3), Charlotte 12 (Davis 4). Total Fouls —MT 18, Charlotte 13. Technical — Dixon (MT). A — 4078.
Points in the Paint —MT 32, Charlotte 28. Points off Turnovers —MT 18, Charlotte 17. Second-Chance Points — MT 15, Charlotte 5. Fast Break Points —MT 8, Charlotte 2. Bench Points — MT 11, Charlotte 7.