CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Most coaches will tell you that any win is a good win. Add Charlotte’s Ron Sanchez to that list.
After a first half where Charlotte virtually neutralized visiting Middle Tennessee, the 49ers held off a gutsy charge from the Blue Raiders, escaping with a 68-62 victory before an announced crowd of 3,538 at Halton Arena.
“Every win is pretty, especially in this building,” said Sanchez. “Every ‘W’ for this team is a sexy win, and it’s a good win.”
That win didn’t come without a few lessons learned.
Charlotte (8-5, 2-0 Conference USA) clamped down on the visitors in the first half, holding Middle Tennessee to just 7-for-26 (26.9 percent) from the field. The Niners attempted just 17 shots in the period, but knocked down 10 of those attempts. Forward Luka Vasic helped those stats, notching a career-high 14 in the opening 20 minutes. The home side also padded its numbers at the charity stripe in the stanza, drawing 15 fouls on the Blue Raiders and hitting 14-of-19 free throws. The effort allowed Charlotte to take a 38-21 advantage to the interval.
Middle Tennessee (4-11, 0-2) was not about to quietly disappear, however. Charlotte made its first three shots of the second half and broke out to a 22-point lead with 15:12 remaining, before Middle began its slow – but steady – ascent. The Blue Raider burst commenced with just shy of 14 minutes remaining, with an 11-0 run that shaved the Charlotte lead in half at 50-40.
“We were stuck on 50 there for a while, trying to figure out how to score,” Sanchez said. “That’s a very explosive offensive team. We knew they would make a run at some point. We just didn’t know when it was coming.”
The run would keep coming.
Jahmir Young knocked down a free throw to briefly halt the flurry, but Middle swung another counterpunch that landed, in the form of a 14-4 spurt that drew the game level at 54. Donovan Sims accounted for much of the burst, drilling three triples in a two-minute span that staggered the home side and left a confused murmur lingering in the Halton Arena seating bowl.
The 49ers then ran out to an 8-0 stretch, moving the lead to 62-54 and – if briefly – drawing a sigh of relief from the green-and-gold-clad faithful. As quickly as that happened, Middle had one final blow remaining.
The Blue Raiders got a Sims free throw followed by an Antonio Green three that led to a Middle timeout. A Reggie Scurry dunk followed on the ensuing Blue Raider possession, leaving the basket swaying back and forth as violently as the Charlotte fans’ emotions had been over the previous few minutes. A Charlotte turnover followed, and Middle’s Jo’Vontae Millner appeared poised to cut the 49er lead to one. Drew Edwards, however, raced down the floor, collecting a chase-down block and holding the Charlotte lead at three.
“(That was) hustle,” Sanchez said. “We talked about it during a time out. We felt that, when the ball was on the floor, they were diving and we were trying to pick it up. We needed to match that.
“Drew – Jahmir turns it over, and here comes a fifth-year grad transfer who doesn’t give up on the play, chases it down without fouling, and gives us the possession back. We talk about (that) there’s always a play in a game that either wins you or loses you a game, and that’s probably the possession in that game that probably got us the victory.”
C.J. Jones knocked down a jumper to again bring Middle within a point following an empty Charlotte possession, but the Blue Raiders could draw no closer. Amidou Bamba extended the lead to three with a forceful dunk, and the 49ers hit three free throws in the final 21 seconds to provide the final margin.
Young led the Niners with 15, helping to pick up some of the slack for guard Jordan Shepherd, who missed his second game in a row due to injury. Four Charlotte scorers joined him in double figures, with Vasic tallying 14 and Bamba 11. Cooper Robb and Malik Martin contributed 10 apiece. Charlotte shook off its second-half struggles to finish the game shooting 48.8 percent (20-for-41), despite hitting just 63.2 percent (24-of-38) from the line.
Sims led Middle and all scorers with 20, hitting 7-of-12 from the field. Jones added 16, with Green totaling 10.
Charlotte will be off for a week, before welcoming Old Dominion to Halton Arena next Saturday. Tip time is slated for 4:00 (Eastern). Middle returns home to the Murphy Center to face Marshall Thursday night. That game is scheduled for a 7:30 tip-off.