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
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
”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
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.”