MTSU men's head coach Nick McDevitt's first season came to a close Wednesday evening at the Conference USA Championship, but not before Blue Raider fans saw the fight that they have become accustomed to out of the first-year head coach's squad in a 70-61 loss to UAB.
The Blue Raiders trailed by as many as 15 points and remained down double digits approaching the final media timeout, but never gave up as they climbed within four down the stretch looking to upset the No. 5 seed Blazers for a third time this season.
"I was really proud of our team for the way they fought tonight," McDevitt said. "In the first half we got down nine but took a lead into the half. Then in the second half we were down 15 but brought it back to four. We fought all night."
"We were just trying to keep pushing, keep fighting," sophomore guard Donovan Sims added. "We knew it wasn't over until the final buzzer sounded."
Turnovers hindered the Blue Raiders early on, as six giveaways through 12 minutes of play saw the Blazers open up a 27-18 lead.
MTSU didn't give the ball up again in the first half, however, closing the frame on a 16-6 run with eight points in the span from senior Karl Gamble.
The 6-foot-9 forward's 14 points before the break, six of which came from behind the arc, led all scorers.
Sims, playing for the first time in over two weeks, pitched in with 11 of his own in the first 20 minutes as MTSU took a 34-33 lead into the locker room.
UAB came out firing on all cylinders after halftime, with six straight points giving the Blazers a five-point lead before Sims answered with a corner 3.
The Blazers went on to hit their first six shots of the second half, and after a 10-2 run grabbed its largest lead so far at 55-43 with 12:47 on the game clock.
"They were tougher than us at big moments in the game tonight," Sims said. "They had a run at the beginning of the game and another at the beginning of the second half at a time when we said we were going to come out and go on a run. That hurt us."
MTSU continued to fight, but down 15 as the clock rolled near eight minutes and without forward James Hawthorne, who had fouled out, the Blue Raiders faced an uphill battle.
McDevitt and his squad were up for the challenge with their season on the line, reeling off a 10-0 run over a span of five minutes and went into the final media timeout down 60-55 after back-to-back triples by Sims.
The Blue Raiders kept pushing, getting as close as four points with 2:50 left on the clock, but the Blazers were finally able to get over the hump and avoid the season sweep against MTSU as they closed the contest on a 10-5 run to take the 9-point win.
Sims finished the night with a game-high 22 points on a career-high six makes from 3-point range. Gamble collected 18 of his own on the night to go along with a career-high 13 rebounds, while Antonio Green dished out a career-high seven assists.
"Donovan showed a lot of that fight tonight after having missed the last two weeks, three games, with a leg injury," McDevitt said. "Karl Gamble was excellent for us tonight in his final game and finishes his career with 94 wins. Not many guys can say that."
"Tonight the ball was moving real well and I had great pace coming off of screens," Sims said of his success shooting the ball. "I was just trying to have good shot selection and take the best looks I could get."
MTSU finishes the season a different team than what it started out as in the fall, going toe-to-toe against the best teams in the league down the stretch after a losing streak not many coaches or players would have the ability to overcome.
"Some of the growth in our team was happening in practice and others just didn't see it outside of our program," McDevitt said. "You could see our team improving, but it didn't always show on the scoreboard. Some of that had to do with the difficulty of our non-conference schedule as well. Not many teams could go through the challenges we did and pull through it and come out stronger at the end of the season.
"Our guys were introducing themselves to each other in August. They didn't know each other much less know how to play with each other. My staff did a great job this season of being patient and developing our team and the players did a great job of believing in us as coaches and in each other. I'm really proud of this group of men."