The short-handed 49ers (5-16, 1-9 C-USA) gave Conference USA leader Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (18-5, 10-1 C-USA) all they had falling, 78-73, in Halton Arena.
Jon Davis led the 49ers with 20 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and four assists. 15 of Davis’s points came in the second half. Najee Garvin scored 17 points. Austin Ajukwa scored 12 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
Prior to Saturday’s contest, redshirt freshman Ryan Murphy broke his ankle in shoot around and is out for the season.
Middle Tennessee’s Nick King posted a double-double with 24 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Blue Raiders.
“This is the toughest team that I have been on in college. There is no question about it, like physically, emotionally, mentally we just have a bunch of tough guy. To fight against the number one team in our Conference like that, losing our two starting guards, that just speaks to our resiliency as a team,” Davis said.
Both teams went back-and-forth to start the game with six lead changes and one tie. A pair of free throws by Ajukwa gave the 49ers an 8-5 lead with 16:48 remaining in the first half. Middle Tennessee tied the game at 11 on a lay-up from King before Ajukwa answered with a three-point play to put the 49ers back kin front 14-11 with 11:59 remaining. Middle Tennessee tied the game at 14 on a three-pointer from Antwain Johnson with 11:32 to go.
Jailan Haslem got a lay-up to cut Charlotte’s deficit to one, but the Blue Raiders went on an 8-0 run to extend their lead to 29-20 with 5:06 remaining. Charlotte cut the Middle Tennessee lead to 33-28 on a basket by Bryant Thomas. The 49ers would not get any closer in the half as the Blue Raiders led 42-33 at halftime.
Charlotte trailed 52-41 with 15:12 remaining in the second half. After a free throw by Garvin and a three-pointer by Davis the Middle Tennessee lead was cut to six with 12:34 remaining. Charlotte was in the bonus with 10:55 remaining in the second half. Both teams then went on a few runs. Charlotte used a quick 10-3 run to cut the lead to 71-67 with 2:33 remaining. Middle Tennessee answered with a tip-in by Karl Gamble to put the Blue Raiders back up by six points.
The 49ers quickly responded with a basket from Garvin and a free throw by Davis to make it 73-70 with 1:32 remaining in the game. Middle Tennessee got a three-pointer on the next possession to get their lead to six points with 1:10 to go. Another lay-up from Garvin and a free-throw from Davis made it a three point game at 76-73 with 49 seconds left. Davis missed the game-tying three pointer with 13 seconds remaining in regulation. Middle Tennessee converted on free throws with six seconds left to finish the game.
Charlotte shot 53 percent from the field for the game. The 49ers shot 14-for-21 (67 percent) from the free throw line. Charlotte got out rebounded by Middle Tennessee 37-21, with 13 of the Blue Raiders rebounds being offensive rebounds. Charlotte did outscore Middle Tennessee in the second half 40-36.
“The first thought that comes to mind is pride, and how proud I am of the way our guys played tonight,” Charlotte 49ers interim coach Houston Fancher said. “We faced a gauntlet of a home Conference USA schedule so far with our first five games against the five toughest teams in the league right now and that’s not an excuse. We are not looking for any moral victories, but to see a sign of growth in this team tonight that we saw when we were up against the best team in our league after they made a run on us and got up 12. We could’ve turned and ran and lost by 20. But we didn’t, we fought back and we got the ball with an opportunity to tie the game with a three in the final seconds. But to answer the bell the way we did tonight after not having Ryan Murphy who broke his foot in shoot around this morning and Andrien White for the second half after he caught an elbow to the head at the end of the first half. I thought we fought and answered the bell tonight.”
Charlotte goes on the road to face Louisiana Tech on Thursday. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m.