By JOHN ZENOR
AP Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Giddy Potts and Middle Tennessee both reached the big 3-0 in timely fashion.
Potts matched his season high with 30 points to lead Middle Tennessee to win No. 30 and its second straight Conference USA Tournament championship with an 83-72 victory over Marshall on Saturday night.
Potts scored seven straight points to help the Blue Raiders (30-4) pull away with a late 15-5 run and reach that milestone win for the first time.
“For us to be able to do that in the fashion we did it, it really speaks volumes about our team and what we had to go through over the season and not just being satisfied with what we did last year,” Middle Tennessee senior Reggie Upshaw Jr. said.
The Thundering Herd (20-15) pulled within two points at 53-51 with 12:51 left before Potts and Middle Tennessee answered with what proved the decisive run.
Potts, the tournament MVP, made three 3-pointers and grabbed eight rebounds for Middle Tennessee while making seven of eight free throws. League player of the year Jacorey Williams, an Arkansas transfer and Birmingham native, added 17 points and Upshaw scored 15 and had eight boards.
Potts drew some motivation from being relegated to third-team all-conference status.
“We were talking about that the whole week,” he said. “(Teammates) were telling me I’ve just got to come out and play my game and I’d be MVP.”
CJ Burks led Marshall with 16 points. Stevie Browning finished a strong tournament with 14 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He had 78 points in four games.
Austin Loop got all 12 of his points on four 3-pointers. Jon Elmore, the league’s leading scorer, had 12 points despite 2-of-9 3-point shooting. Adjin Penava had 10 points.
“I don’t think we shot as well as we usually do,” Elmore said. “The whole tournament we’ve been kind of burning the nets down and making everything. We started out slow and still didn’t shoot very well for us at all.”
The Blue Raiders had a 13-point lead cut to 40-32 by halftime. Browning punctuated the half with a contested 3-pointer with 5 seconds left for Marshall and added another in the final second.
“This team kicked the car on down the road a little bit,” third-year Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni said. “We got 20 wins and were in the finals of the conference and started out at rock bottom. The hardest part is taking a program that’s maturing and playing one that’s mature.”
Marshall: defeated two of the top three seeds to make the title game, and was seeking its first NCAA Tournament bid since the 1986-87 season. … Missed its first 10 3-point attempts after setting a school and C-USA tournament record with 19 makes in a semifinal win over Louisiana Tech. Finished 10 of 32 from beyond the arc.
“For the first 13 minutes, we guarded about as well as we can guard,” the Blue Raiders’ Davis said. “We made them take tough shots.”
Middle Tennessee: reached 30 wins for the first time. … Made 30 of 56 shots (53.6 percent). … Outrebounded Marshall 41-35.
D’Antoni drew a technical foul with 5:12 left protesting a foul call against Penava. Potts made one of two technical free throws to push the Blue Raiders’ lead back to double digits. Upshaw, who drew the foul, made both of his attempts from the line.
Marshall hopes for an NIT berth to extend the season and careers of three senior starters.
Middle Tennessee awaits its NCAA Tournament destination after arriving in Birmingham with an already-strong RPI of 37. “Our team thinks we’ve got a lot of basketball left and that’s going to be our mindset this week,” Davis said.