Middle Tennessee 53, UALR 48

Middle Tennessee’s Ebony Rowe knew well what it was like to walk

off the Summit Arena court after a difficult loss, having done so

the last two seasons.

The junior made sure she didn’t have to experience that feeling

again Monday, scoring 20 points and grabbing 13 rebounds to lead

the Blue Raiders to a 53-48 victory over Arkansas-Little Rock in

the Sun Belt Conference championship game.

Middle Tennessee (25-7) earned its fifth straight NCAA

tournament appearance with its first tournament title since 2010.

Last season, the Blue Raiders lost in overtime to UALR before

making the NCAA tournament as an at-large team.

”It feels a lot better to know you’re going to watch and you’re

name’s going to get called, without a doubt,” Middle Tennessee

guard Kortni Jones said. ”Last year, we were on pins and


”… This year, we know our name will pop up.”

Two years ago, the Blue Raiders took part in the conference

tournament just days following the stabbing death of teammate Tina

Stewart. They lost their first game that year, as well as last

season’s championship game to the Trojans (24-8).

This time around, however, Middle Tennessee found a way to rally

from seven points down in the second half to return to the top of

the conference it has ruled for a decade. The Blue Raiders will

make their seventh NCAA appearance in the last eight years.

”I never felt like that we would lose this tournament,” Middle

Tennessee coach Rick Insell said. ”I asked the good Lord, I said,

`These kids need to be rewarded’ because they’ve gone through a

bunch the last three years, a lot more than anybody across this

country will ever know.

”… An ordinary student-athlete, it would have been tough on

them. They’re not ordinary, I’ll tell you. They’re way above


Middle Tennessee trailed by seven points in the second half

before rallying after the Trojans went nearly seven minutes without

a point.

The loss snapped a 13-game winning streak for UALR, which was

led by Shanity James’ 14 points. The Trojans, who were in the

championship game for the fifth straight year, have been to the

last three NCAA tournaments.

UALR coach Joe Foley wasn’t counting on a fourth straight this

year after Monday, thanks in large part to a mid-season stretch

where the Trojans lost six of seven games.

”That would be tough, it’d be tough,” Foley said. ”… You’ve

got to get your name up on that bracket early in the year, and if

you don’t get it up there it’s hard to get up there at the end of

the year.

”I think it will be very tough for us.”

Middle Tennessee opened the game on a 8-0 run, behind 3-pointers

by Jones and Caroline Warden and a layup by Elie, but UALR

responded with a run of its own after missing its first six


James’ jumper put the Trojans up 9-8, the first of five lead

changes in the half between the same two teams that went to

overtime in the championship game a year ago. The Blue Raiders did

rally to take a 15-11 lead after a jumper by Jones, but the

four-point margin was the largest the rest of the half – after

which UALR held a 26-25 lead.

UALR led 42-39 after a jumper by Kiera Clark with 10:06

remaining. The Trojans, however, then went nearly seven minutes

without a point, and Middle Tennessee went up 44-42 on two free

throws by Rowe. UALR finally scored again with 3:08 remaining on a

jumper by Taylor Gault and it then took a 46-44 lead after a basket

by Clark.

Middle Tennessee, which won its fifth straight regular season

Sun Belt title this year, took control after that – outscoring the

Trojans 9-0 until a meaningless basket in the closing seconds by


Gault, UALR’s leading scorer with an average of 13.9 points per

game, finished with 13 points on 6-of-23 shooting.

”We couldn’t make shots, I guess,” Gault said. ”… I guess

we just couldn’t do it.”

Rowe made four free throws during the closing run, and she hit

12 of 15 free throws overall in earning Most Valuable Player

honors. She also helped the Blue Raiders, who were making their

10th championship game appearance in the last 11 years, avenge last

season’s overtime loss to the Trojans.

The win is the seventh straight for Middle Tennessee, which

split with UALR during the regular season and last lost to the

Trojans on Feb. 16.

”I’ve been saying it all year, we’re such a dangerous team

because we know how to play together,” Rowe said. ”And we play

really well together.”