BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) Reggie Upshaw scores and rebounds and doles out more assists than any of his Middle Tennessee teammates.
Upshaw found a different way to help to the Blue Raiders advance to the NCAA Tournament, making two free throws with 2.9 seconds left to lift Middle Tennessee to a 55-53 victory over Old Dominion on Saturday in the Conference USA championship game.
''It's the best memory I'll ever have as far as basketball is concerned,'' Upshaw said. ''I know my teammates feel the same way.''
The Blue Raiders (24-9) earned their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2013 and second in 27 years in a defensive struggle that was markedly different from their 99-90 semifinal shootout with Marshall. It's the program's first league tournament title since winning in the Ohio Valley Conference in 1989.
At or near the top of Middle Tennessee in most statistical categories, Upshaw delivered at the line, where he's just a 50 percent shooter. He was the tournament MVP
Aaron Bacote dribbled once and launched a 3-pointer from before midcourt for Old Dominion (22-13). It missed, touching off a celebration that included Upshaw standing on the scorer's table in front of Middle Tennessee fans at Legacy Arena.
''It's unreal,'' Middle Tennessee forward Perrin Buford said. ''As a child you dream of playing Division I and going to the Big Dance. That's what me and my teammates are about to do.''
''It's going to be one of the best weeks at Middle Tennessee University in a long, long time this next week,'' Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis said.
Giddy Potts led Middle Tennessee with 14 points and made 4 of 5 3-pointers before fouling out. Darnell Harris scored 10 points and Upshaw had nine, including the two biggest.
Trey Freeman led Old Dominion with 17 points, but was only 7-of-23 shooting. Bacote scored 15 points and the rest of the team totaled 21.
Brandan Stith's tip-in attempt off Bacote's miss didn't fall, and he didn't appear to get it off on time anyway. He sprawled face-first on the floor afterward.
Freeman, the league's leading scorer, couldn't come close to his semifinal performance. He set a tournament record with 42 points, including 34 in the second half against Western Kentucky.
Middle Tennessee shot 36.5 percent and Old Dominion 35.7 percent.
''We didn't play well but Middle Tennessee had an awful lot to do with that,'' Old Dominion coach Jeff Jones said. ''But our guys scrapped and left everything out there on the floor. But they've been doing that for most of the year.''
The teams traded tying baskets inside over the final 1:11 then Zoran Talley, whose jumper had given the Monarchs a lead, missed this time.
Middle Tennessee ran off most of the clock before Upshaw spun and was fouled by Denzell Taylor as he shot.
''We figured they'd go to Upshaw,'' Jones said. ''He's their best player. He's the most versatile player in the league.''
Potts, the nation's No. 2 3-point shooter, fouled out on a charge with 3:17 left and the game tied at 49. The rest of the team was 2 of 11 from 3-point range.
TREY'S TOUGH TIME
Freeman launched an array of long jumpers and made a deep 3-pointer but got few open looks. He refused to blame the fatigue from playing four games in four days. ''I just had a bad game,'' he said.
Davis said, win or lose, his team would stick around Saturday night and watch the women's title game, also matching up Middle Tennessee and Old Dominion.
Middle Tennessee: Has won six straight games. Now 9-1 in games decided by three points or less.
Old Dominion: Was trying to become the fifth C-USA team to win four tournament games in four days and first since Houston in 2012. Made 1 of 9 3-ointers.
Middle Tennessee is heading to its eighth NCAA Tournament.
Old Dominion awaits its postseason fate, possibly in the NIT.