Middle Tennessee survives battle with Western Kentucky to advance

Blue Raiders set to play FIU in Monday's semifinal on CSS

March 4, 2012 · Athletic Communications
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Middle Tennessee held a double-digit lead for much of the contest, but a late Western Kentucky rally forced the Blue Raiders to convert their free throws down the stretch and hold on for a 65-57 victory over the Lady Toppers in Sun Belt Tournament Quarterfinal action from the Summit Arena in Hot Springs, Ark., Sunday.

With the win, Middle Tennessee (25-5) extends its current streak without a loss to 19 games, the second longest in program history, and advances to face FIU in a Noon Semifinal Monday live on the Sun Belt Network, which will be shown on Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast (CSS) in Murfreesboro.

Junior Kortni Jones, an All-Sun Belt First Team honoree, led all players with 25 points, including three 3-pointers. She has now hit 107 triples on the campaign, continuing to rank second nationally. She dropped in 5-of-6 free throws in the final minute to help ice the triumph and give the Blue Raiders their 10th straight against Western Kentucky, the longest streak in the series for either program.

Women's Basketball vs. WKU
She was joined in double figures by fellow All-Sun Belt First Team pick, sophomore Ebony Rowe, who tallied a dozen. Rowe finished just one board shy of her 14th double-double of the campaign and contributed three blocked shots and three steals.

Sophomore Laken Leonard also added three 3-pointers, while freshman Shanice Cason hit a pair from beyond the arc.

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Leading the Lady Toppers was a double-double effort of 12 points and 10 rebounds by Jasmine Johnson. Alexis Govan chipped in 10 points and eight boards, while Danay Fothergill came off the bench providing a late spark with her team-best 18 points, all on 3-pointers. Her five second-half treys kept WKU within reach after it struggled to knock down only 28.0 percent of its field goals during the opening 20 minutes.

After the Lady Toppers netted the game’s first bucket, a Cason layup ignited a 15-1 spurt over the next three-and-a-half minutes, capped by back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers from Leonard, Cason and Jones to push the MT advantage quickly to 15-3 and prompting a Western Kentucky (10-20) timeout with 12:56 left.

Fothergill then drained her first triple, and the team’s only one of the period, to halt the surge but Jones answered with a steal and layup on the other end and Cason converted her second 3-pointer to extend the difference to 14, 20-6, with 10:33 remaining.

The Lady Toppers would claw back to within 10 on layups from LaTeira Owens and Govan before Leonard stepped behind the arc for another Blue Raider triple. The lead then would swell to as high as 17, 29-12, on a Jones trey with exactly six minutes to go.

Owens keyed a 6-0 Western Kentucky run, covering just over a five-minute stretch, to pull within 29-18 with 1:48 remaining. The differential climbed back to 15 with a minute to play, however, Govan recorded a layup and Ileana Johnson knocked down a pair of free throws with 34 seconds left to bring the Lady Toppers back within 11, 33-22. Sophomore Janay Brinkley added the final points of the half on a running layup with 16 seconds remaining to give MT a 13-point, 35-22, edge at the intermission.

A 7-2 Blue Raider spurt to open the second stanza, capped by an old-fashioned three-point play from redshirt sophomore Lauren March, inched the margin to 18, 42-24, with 16:38 remaining. Consecutive 3-pointers from Fothergill trimmed the deficit to a dozen in the next two minutes and it remained a 13-point Middle Tennessee lead, 46-33, with 11:36 to go.

Neither team scored for a near two-and-a-half minute stretch before Jones and sophomore KeKe Stewart hit back-to-back jumpers for a 50-33 advantage at the 8:51 mark. Fothergill and Leonard traded triples before Western Kentucky mounted a 12-2 surge in the next five minutes to close within seven, 55-48, on a Govan layup at 3:12. It was the closest the Lady Toppers had been since a 9-3 Blue Raider edge at the 14:26 mark of the initial half.

With WKU feeling as if it made its comeback push, Jones went down on the other end and hit a momentum-changing 3-pointer from the wing at 3:01 to make it a 10-point cushion once again. Although it was the final field goal for Middle Tennessee, the Blue Raiders converted 7-of-8 free throws to stem off any additional Lady Topper run and hold on for the victory, although Western Kentucky made it a six-point contest with 21 seconds to play.

In addition to the 10th-straight win in the series for Middle Tennessee, it also marked the second-straight time it has eliminated WKU from the league tournament.

The Blue Raiders’ semifinal matchup with FIU is set after the Panthers handed Denver a 67-59 setback in the other early quarterfinal Sunday. Middle Tennessee knocked off FIU two times earlier this season, 58-53 in Murfreesboro Dec. 21 in the league opener, and 74-60 Jan. 12 in Miami.

Dick Palmer and Duane Hickey will call all the action on the Blue Raider Network of WMOT (89.5 FM) and WGNS (1450 AM, 100.5 FM, 101.9 FM).

Lyn Rollins and Debbie Leonard will handle the duties for the Sun Belt Network TV broadcast.

Follow the Blue Raiders on Twitter @MTAthletics for continued updates.