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Surging Blue Raiders Open San Juan Shootout With Fifth Straight Win

December 20, 2004 · MT Media Relations
SAN JUAN, Puerto, Rico - Middle Tennessee flexed its muscle down the stretch in what was a see-saw affair against Toledo to claim a hard-fought 70-65 triumph in the first game of the San Juan Shootout at Angola Coliseum Monday.

The surging Blue Raiders (6-2) won their fifth straight game to match the longest winning streak for Middle Tennessee since the 2001-02 season on the strength of strong shooting and superlative bench play, which has become a staple for the squad at the outset of the 2004-05 season.

Michael Cuffee and Marcus Morrison led the Blue Raiders with 15 points each, while Mike Dean added 13 points, including three clutch free throws in the final 26 seconds to seal the win against Toledo (1-5). Jonathan Loe also came up big with 10 points - all in the second half - to spark a decisive Middle Tennessee run. Point guard Bryan Smithson finished with nine points, and he also had three assists and a pair of steals.

The Blue Raiders shot 50 percent (24-of-48) from the field and connected on 38 percent (6-of-16) of their 3-point attempts, while also dominating the boards (34-24). The game featured eight ties and nine lead changes.

"This was a very good win against a quality basketball team," Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said. "We had some guys who really stepped up, particularly in the second half, and when the game was on the line we had players make some big-time plays on both ends of the floor."

Middle Tennessee led 28-25 at the half, but Toledo came out strong in the second half and took a 41-36 advantage with 14:47 remaining before Loe caught fire and scored eight straight points to turn the game back in the Blue Raiders' favor.

Trailing 53-51 with 8:49 remaining, Loe connected on a long-range 3-pointer, then scored a layup off a Fats Cuyler steal to build a 56-53 Blue Raider lead. Loe came back with another 3-pointer on Middle Tennessee's next possession to increase the margin to 59-53 with 7:03 to play.

Middle Tennessee maintained its advantage until Keith Triplett, who led all scorers with 19 points, converted a layup to give Toledo a 64-63 advantage with 3:54 remaining, but Smithson came back with his biggest basket of the game - a long 3-pointer with 3:40 to play that gave the Blue Raiders the lead for good.

The Blue Raider bench, led by Morrison and Loe, outscored the Rocket reserves, 27-8, and made the biggest difference in a game that wasn't decided until the final seconds.

Middle Tennessee returns to action when it faces Auburn Tuesday at 11 a.m.

NOTES: Senior center Steve Thomas made his Blue Raider debut against Toledo Monday and scored four points and pulled six rebounds. Thomas, who transferred from Georgia and had to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, earned the start in his first game and played 22 minutes ... Jonathan Loe scored a career-high 10 points in 13 minutes of action. The junior guard scored eight straight points during one stretch in the second half to help spark the Blue Raider victory ... Middle Tennessee's bench produced 27 points to key the win with Loe and Morrison combining for 25. The Blue Raider bench has scored 20 or more points in five of the first eight games and Middle Tennessee is now 5-0 when its bench outscores the opposition's ... Middle Tennessee's five-game winning streak is the team's longest since the 2001-02 season when the Blue Raiders won as many in succession from Jan. 24 through Feb. 4 ... Middle Tennessee improved to 33-4 under Head Coach Kermit Davis when leading at the half and 34-5 when leading with five minutes remaining ... The Blue Raiders improved to 2-2 all-time in the San Juan Shootout. The team went 1-2 in 1998, its only other time playing in the tournament.

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