Middle Tenn women lose 84-72 to No. 7 Kentucky
Rick Insell certainly is putting his Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders through a very tough test to start this season with the payoff hopefully coming once they start play in their new conference and in the postseason.
For now, the Blue Raiders are proving they won't give up.
Ebony Rowe scored 28 points as Middle Tennessee lost 84-72 to No. 7 Kentucky on Sunday, rallying despite falling behind by as much as 17 in the second half.
''We hadn't got any gimmes on our schedule, and that's good because when we start up in January in our conference that's when we've got to know we've got it together,'' Insell said.
Middle Tennessee (1-3) opened the season hosting now No. 3 Tennessee, and all three losses now have come to Southeastern Conference teams including a trip to Arkansas on Tuesday night. The teams the Blue Raiders have played currently have a combined record of 19-2, which should help when Middle Tennessee starts Conference USA play in January.
Insell also started two freshmen for the first time this season in guard China Dow and forward Olivia Jones. Insell said the freshmen bring enthusiasm and excitement even though they still don't know what they're doing.
''We still got a lot of upside,'' Insell said. I'm not anywhere near negative on our basketball team. I just have to go sit down and figure out a few things about what's going on and look at those changes a little bit.''
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell knows only too well the challenges of playing in the Blue Raiders' home. Kentucky (6-0) had lost in its last two visits to Murphy Center against Insell, but the big-scoring Wildcats left with the program's first win here since Jan. 8, 1989.
''I think that's what makes it for real fun, competitive games,'' Mitchell said. ''He's had more fun than us the last two times, so we're really going to enjoy this one riding back. So we're really proud of our team.''
Bria Goss scored 16 points and Kastine Evans added 15. Jennifer O'Neill also had 14 points, and Samarie Walker had 12. Kentucky now has won 16 straight against non-conference teams in the regular season, and the Wildcats improved to 11-4 all-time against Middle Tennessee.
The Wildcats opened by hitting their first five shots and took control with nine straight points capped by a steal by Goss and a layup for a 12-3 lead. They led by as much as 12 when Goss hit a 3-pointer midway through the half for a 27-15 lead and were up 41-34 at halftime.
Kentucky came in leading the SEC in scoring with 97.2 points per game with the Wildcats cranking it up to 102.8 points over the past four games. They were coming off a 116-49 rout of Lipscomb in their last game, the most points scored under Mitchell.
The Wildcats didn't come close to that pace Sunday as they played through lots of foul trouble with 30 fouls compared to 19 for Middle Tennessee. But they also forced the Blue Raiders into 23 turnovers that they turned into 34 points and had a 35-34 edge on the boards. Kentucky also hit 50 percent (33 of 66) from the floor.
Middle Tennessee only tied Kentucky once at 3 and got within five a few times early in the second half, the last at 47-42. Kentucky scored the next nine points to push the lead back to double digits with a layup by Harper capping the spurt with 14:05 to go and a 58-42 lead. The Wildcats pushed that to as much as 17 with 8:46 left before Middle Tennessee made one last push.
The Blue Raiders went on a 15-4 run capped by seven straight before Shanice Cason scored on a drive to pull them within 74-68 with 2:36 left.
But Cason missed the free throw for the three-point play, and that was as close as Middle Tennessee would get.