EL PASO, Texas (AP) Middle Tennessee State showed its consistency by securing another trip to the NCAA tournament.
Ebony Rowe scored 23 points to help the 22nd-ranked Blue Raiders cruise to an 84-55 victory over Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA title game Saturday night, earning the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Olivia Jones had 18 points, KeKe Stewart added 15 and China Dow 11 to help the Blue Raiders (29-4) get their 11th straight win. Middle Tennessee, which previously played in the Sun Belt Conference, secured a berth in the NCAA tournament for the 10th time in 11 years by winning its first C-USA title.
”I feel like Middle Tennessee is one of the top 20 programs in the country,” Blue Raiders coach Rick Insell said. ”We’re not the best program in the country, but we’re in the top 20, and we’re there every year.
”We’re real proud of what our program stands for. The basketball gurus know about Middle Tennessee, and they know that Middle Tennessee is a tough, tough team.”
It was quite a show from one of the conference’s newest members, who felt like they were a little underappreciated early in the season. Asked if this win put all that talk behind, Rowe said yes.
”I would say so,” she said. ”But it was rightfully so. We were the newcomers in the conference, so we knew we had to prove ourselves just like any other team would have to. I think this (win) just kind of put the icing on the cake and really got the respect we deserved in this conference.”
Jameirra Faulkner had 20 points and 10 assists to lead Southern Miss (26-6). Faulkner set a conference tournament record with 30 assists this week.
Tamara Jones added 15 points and Jerontay Clemons had 12 for the Golden Eagles, who handed the Blue Raiders their only conference loss this season, snapped a 13-game winning streak.
Middle Tennessee led 30-22 at halftime before outscoring Southern Miss 54-33 after the break.
”It was our worst game in Conference USA,” Southern Miss coach Joye Lee-McNelis said. ”We were out of rhythm, out of sync. Defensively we were out of sync. We gave up lots of offensive rebounds – nine in the first half and they hit three 3s. They had 12 points off turnovers in the first half, nine points off the boards. … That was basically their game.”
This matchup of the conference’s top two seeds was supposed to be much closer than the rout it turned into. Early on, it was close, as the Eagles led 5-0 and 11-7 before the top-seeded Raiders tied it at 12-12 with 11:45 left in the first half.
A 3-pointer by Rowe with 10:30 remaining in the period gave MTSU its first lead. Southern Miss regained the advantage on baskets by Clemons and Faulkner to go ahead 16-15. After a bucket by Olivia Jones gave the Raiders a 17-16 edge, consecutive scores by Tamara Jones and Faulkner gave the Eagles what would be their last lead of the game at 20-17.
From there, the Raiders closed out the half on a 13-2 spurt that included four three-point possessions and was aided by six Eagles turnovers. In the final 5:30 of the first half, Southern Miss had just four points on a pair of baskets by Faulkner.
After the half, it was all Raiders.
Rowe, who had just eight points in the first half, scored four of her team’s first five baskets of the second half as the Raiders pushed the lead to 13.
After a 3-pointer by Tamara Jones briefly cut the lead to 10 at 41-31, MTSU took off with a 12-0 run that included three buckets from Olivia Jones to push the lead to 53-31.
The Raiders kept the pressure on from there, pushing the lead to 29 at the final buzzer.
”If you look at the NCAA rankings, we’re seventh in the country in Division I defense,” Insell said. ”So we’ve played good, consistent defense all year. Basically we stuck with (our game plan) and we were able to convert. We saw it was giving them problems what we were doing, so we stuck with it.”
As for the Eagles’ NCAA tournament chances, Lee-McNelis said she believed her team should earn a bid.
”Should we get in the NCAA tournament at large? Indeed,” she said. ”We’re 29th in RPI with the people we’ve played. You look at the big picture and we’ve been able to beat top 50 teams, top 100 teams. Will that get us in? I don’t know.”