FACTS & STATS: Site: Summit Arena (6,200) -- Hot Spring, Arkansas. Television: Sun Belt Network. Home Record: FIU 10-3, MT 16-0. Away Record: FIU 6-10, MT 11-3. Neutral Record: FIU 1-0, MT 1-1. Conference Record: FIU 11-9, MT 19-1. Series Record: Middle Tennessee leads, 23-6.
GAME NOTES: The Sun Belt Conference Tournament soldiers on to the semifinal round on Sunday night, as the top-seeded Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders take on the fourth-seeded FIU Panthers.
The winner will advance to Monday's championship game to face off against either Western Kentucky or Arkansas State.
In its quarterfinal matchup, FIU made easy work of fifth-seeded Arkansas- Little Rock, winning 69-54. The Panthers have come out victorious in four of their last five games to improve to 17-13 on the campaign.
Middle Tennessee also breezed through its quarterfinal bout on Saturday night, taking care of eighth-seeded Louisiana, 81-66. The Blue Raiders, who are the SBC's two-time defending regular-season champs, moved to an outstanding 28-4 overall, setting a program record for most wins in a season, topping last year's mark of 27. They have also accumulated 17 straight victories, the longest current winning streak in the nation.
Middle Tennessee captured both matchups against FIU this season, although the Owls fought to the end in the 66-64 decision back on Jan. 31. The Blue Raiders own a convincing 23-6 edge in the all-time series.
FIU dominated both ends of the court in its quarterfinal-round matchup, shooting 46.9 percent from the field (including 11-of-26 from 3-point range), while holding UALR to a lowly 30.6 percent on its way to the 15-point victory. Malik Smith was on fire in the triumph, shooting 8-of-10, all from beyond the arc, for 25 points. Deric Hill was a difference-maker across the board with 12 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and six steals, while Tymell Murphy poured in 12 points. On the season, the Panthers haven't had much of an issue finding a way to score points, netting 69.5 ppg, but they oftentimes need to outscore opponents due to their suspect defense (69.6 ppg). Murphy was named First Team All-SBC this season and scores 15.0 ppg on a league-best 58.9 percent from the field to go along with 6.7 ppg, 1.8 spg and 1.1 bpg. Smith (14.1 ppg) has drained 89 3-pointers at a 36 percent clip, and Jerome Frink brings 10.2 ppg and 6.2 rpg to the table.
The Blue Raiders trailed by one point less than two minutes into the game, but that would be the only deficit they would face all night against Louisiana in the quarterfinals, as they shot 48.9 percent from the field and took advantage of their abundant attempts from the foul line (31-of-39) to advance in the tournament. Bruce Massey led the way with 15 points, while Raymond Cintron (12 points) and James Gallman (11 points) were both crucial components coming off the bench. Middle Tennessee has grown accustomed to fantastic all-around performances, as it ranks first in the Sun Belt in scoring offense (71.7 ppg) and field goal percentage (.466), as well as scoring defense (57.7 ppg) and field goal percentage defense (.396). Marcos Knight is the team's top performer with 12.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg and more than a steal per contest, but even though he is the only player to score in double figures on a nightly basis, head coach Kermit Davis relies on a deep rotation, as nine others net at least 3.8 ppg. Bruce Massey (6.6 ppg) may not stand out on the stat sheet, but he is nonetheless a difference-maker, as he earned the SBC Defensive Player of the Year award.
FIU has been playing well of late, and if Smith can consistently knock down outside shots, it can hang with Middle Tennessee. That said, the Blue Raiders are a team on a mission and they show no signs of slowing down.