Slow start sends MT to first league loss

Blue Raiders hold three-game lead in East Division

January 29, 2011 · Athletic Communications

MIAMI - Middle Tennessee could not get anything started during the early portions of the contest, and despite a monumental comeback in which it took a late lead, it could not full recover in dropping a 62-59 decision Saturday afternoon at FIU inside the U.S. Century Bank Arena in Miami. The loss is the first in nine conference contests for the East Division-leading squad, who maintains a three-game edge in the standings as second-place Western Kentucky also lost earlier in the day.

The Blue Raiders began the game by digging themselves a hole deeper than the start to any game this season. FIU netted the opening 11 points, as Middle Tennessee could not recover from turnovers and missed shots and the Panthers took advantage of the missed opportunities.

Sophomore Icelyn Elie broke the drought with the second of a two-shot foul situation at 15:19 but the points kept pouring in for FIU on the other end. The lid remained open and Elie finally hit the Blue Raiders' first field goal at 11:27 to pull MT within 16, 19-3.

The Panthers finally began to slow down in their scoring rate halfway through the first half, but unfortunately for Middle Tennessee (17-5, 8-1 Sun Belt), it could only manage a 3-pointer from senior Anne Marie Lanning to add to its total for a 23-6 score at the 7:41 mark.

The Blue Raider offense continued to warm and allowed it to start cutting into the FIU (9-14, 4-5 Sun Belt) lead. Lanning buried another triple, while sophomore Kortni Jones and freshman Jordyn Luffman each added one, and rookie Ebony Rowe went to work on the low block. Using all players to its advantage, MT continued to slice into the deficit with Luffman providing the final eight points to make it just a five-point difference, 27-22, at the intermission.

The Blue Raider defense was also a key to the rally, holding the Panthers to just three field goals in the final 10 minutes but none after Elisa Carey's second basket at 4:56. Middle Tennessee forced 13 FIU turnovers during the frame and limited the Panthers to just one 3-pointer.

Rowe became the primary focus of the Blue Raider attack as the second half got underway. The freshman forward netted 11 consecutive MT points over a five-minute stretch, including an old-fashioned three-point play to make it 38-33 at the 15:12 mark.

Outside shots began to fall again for the Blue Raiders during the next two minutes, as junior Tina Stewart and Lanning each registered one from behind the arc for a four-point gap, 43-39, just under seven minutes elapsed in the period.

The lead swelled to a half-dozen before KeKe Stewart scored three straight times for Middle Tennessee, including a 12-footer in the lane at 9:11 to force the game's first tie, 45-45. The two teams traded buckets again before Fanni Hutlassa gave FIU a two-point, 51-49, edge with 6:30 to play on a 3-pointer. The lead grew to five on a pair of Jerica Coley jumpers, providing the Panthers with a 56-51 cushion with 3:35 left.

Lanning hit another 3-pointer before Jones located Elie for a short layup, tying the game at 56-56 with 2:40 remaining. Coley put the Panthers back on top following an Elie turnover before Jones swished home a triple with 1:25 to go, giving the Blue Raiders a brief, 59-58, lead, its only advantage of the contest.

Middle Tennessee could not capitalize off a missed FIU shot on the next possession and a foul sent Carey to the charity stripe. She made both attempts, putting the Panthers back ahead one, 60-59, but another Blue Raider attempt rimmed out and the ball went out of bounds to FIU.

Luffman forced a steal on the ensuing in-bounds play and MT went to the bench to draw up a play. The result was instead a turnover and the Blue Raiders were forced to foul. Michelle Gonzalez knocked down both free throws, deciding the final margin, as Middle Tennessee could not get a clean look before the shot clock expired.

Rowe finished with her 12th double-double of the season by leading all players with 17 points and 11 rebounds in 35 minutes. She was joined by Lanning in double-figure scoring, as the senior added a dozen, all from behind the arc.

Jones distributed nine assists, helping the Blue Raiders to 17 handouts on 24 field goals made.

Four Panthers reached double digits, as Coley paced the squad with 15. Finda Mansare contributed 14, Carmen Miloglav chipped in 13 and Carey posted 12. Carey hauled in a team-best nine rebounds, while Coley grabbed eight boards.

Middle Tennessee will return home for its next two games, beginning at 7 p.m. Wednesday when it plays host to ULM inside the Murphy Center. A 5:30 p.m. Saturday tip against South Alabama is also on the docket for the upcoming week.

Fans are also reminded of the next installment of Rick Insell Live!, the weekly radio show held from 6-7 p.m. Monday at Coach's Grill in Murfreesboro. Play-by-play voice Dick Palmer will sit down with the Blue Raiders' head coach and other special guests during the event.

Sun Belt Tournament tickets now on-sale through the Middle Tennessee ticket office. Ticket booklets are $83 and can be purchased by stopping by the ticket office at Gate 1A of Floyd Stadium or calling 1-888-YES-MTSU for the league event, held March 5-8 in Hot Springs, Ark.

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