Championship effort lifts Blue Raiders to SBC title

MT makes fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament apperance

March 11, 2013 · @MTAthletics

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Gritty play down the stretch helped No. 1 seed Middle Tennessee overcome a seven point second half deficit and win the Sun Belt Championship, 53-48, over No. 2 UALR on Monday afternoon at Summit Arena. The Blue Raiders will make their school-record fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance by clinching the automatic berth.

UALR (24-8) used strong defensive pressure to limit the Raiders' shot opportunities. MT (25-7) trailed by just one, 26-25, at the half. The Trojans opened to a seven point lead before a four straight points from Ebony Rowe and a Shanice Cason layup flipped the momentum.

With the game tied at 46, Cason drove down the lane and made a layup at 1:48 to give Middle Tennessee a 48-46 edge. The Trojans were held to just two points in the final minutes as MT made five free throws to seal the win.

Sun Belt Conference Women's Basketball Championship
Monday's victory assured the Blue Raiders their fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth, surpassing the previous school record of four straight appearances from 1983 to 1986. MT won its seventh Sun Belt title in the past 10 years and the first since 2010. 

Rowe grabbed her 20th double-double this season, corralling 20 points and 13 rebounds. The Lexington product made 12 of 15 from the charity stripe. Rowe also moved into elite history becoming the school's all-time rebounder (1,002) by passing Jennifer McFall's previous best of 992. She also is the first Blue Raider to score 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a career. Rowe was also named to the SBC All-Tournament team.

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Senior Kortni Jones used her leadership to knock down six baskets and score 15 points. Jones' two triples gave her 257 all-time, tying the all-time record previously set by Brandi Brown. The Oak Ridge product also passed out four assists in the win. Jones was named the Sun Belt Tournament MVP.

Cason, a Murfreesboro native, finished her day with seven points, a steal and an assist. The Murfreesboro product was ruthless on the board as she reeled in eight.

In total, Middle Tennessee shot 32 percent from the field (16-of-49). UALR knocked down 21-of-63 for 33 percent on Monday. MT out-manned the Trojans 44-39 on the board, while utilizing 11 bench points.

Blue Raiders opened the game on an eight point run, collecting treys from Jones and Warden. MT went through a four minute scoreless drought and the Trojans capitalized reeling off seven points. UALR's Shantity James connected on a three-pointer and a layup to help the Trojans take a 26-25 lead into the locker room.

In the second half, the Blue Raiders were held to just three points in the first nine minutes as UALR opened to a seven point lead. Rowe scored four straight points to cut the deficit to three. Cason threw up a critical layup, cutting the deficit to 40-39 with 10:26 left.

A scoreless stretch of six minutes was snapped when Laken Leonard drained triple, tying the game at 42-42. The lead swapped three times until Cason added another layup to give MT the go-ahead edge, 48-46. From there, UALR was limited to a basket as MT connected on five free throws to seal the win.

Middle Tennessee awaits its opponent in the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA Selection Show is set for next Monday, March 18 at 6 p.m. CT. Full details will be announced later this week.


Ebony Rowe (1,002) is now the school record holder in double-doubles, passing Jennifer McFall's 992 boards ... Rowe is the first 1,000 point scorer and 1,000 rebounder in school history ... Ebony Rowe now holds three school records (offensive rebounds, rebounds and double-doubles) ... Rowe inked her 20th double-double this season the 52nd of her career with 20 points and 13 rebounds ... Kortni Jones ties Brandi Brown for the school record with 257 made triples ... MT won its seventh Sun Belt title out of 10 appearances in the past 11 years. The NCAA Tournament appearance is the seventh out of the last eight years for MT. 

Middle Tennessee Quotes

Opening Statement from Head Coach Rick Insell:

"What a game. It seems like every time Little Rock and Middle Tennessee lock up, it's a game like that. The way it's been the last four years anyway; just a battle. A battle of minds, a battle of physicality, and it is usually the ones that are able to endure the runs are the ones that are the winner. Our kids were able to endure a run or two that they had and then were able to get about a seven minute break where we stopped them defensively, and it got us back in the game mentally as well as on the scoreboard. I am awful proud of our young ladies."

Question for Head Coach Rick Insell: What is the story on Shanice and what she has been through.

"Competition make the team better, makes the player better, and competition has made both of those guards better. I made mention yesterday that Caroline (Warden) did a good job, but I also mentioned the fact that Shanice did a great job for us too. There was two big plays that she made there, but not only that, it was the pressure. The kid was absolutely give out. She was guarding one of the best point guards in the country in Taylor Ford and she was up in her all day long. There is not any energy left in Shanice Cason and that is what you want when your players walk off the floor. I can say that for sure on her.

Over the last 11 minutes, you held UALR to three field goals. Can you just comment on your defense?

"A lot of people think that we are all about offense, but I think if you come to one of our practices, about 75 percent of the time is spent working on our defensive principles. One of the last things we talked about in our huddle was to stay with our principles. We knew what they were going to do. We knew their offense as well as they knew what our offense was, and we had to shut that down. You saw Laken Leonard out there, who has no lateral quickness at all, but she was getting through the picks late and had her hand in the lane; things that we work on every day. You say Kortni, who is our offensive engine, and she was out on Gault. Gault was forced to take one or two shots outside of what she wanted to, so really we have been working on that stuff since October.

About the defense, how huge was keeping them from making plays that they did on you last year down the stretch.

They had a different type team last year. They had more of a power-oriented team and this year they have more of a perimeter team. They have a lot of lateral quickness and attacking the basket, so really it was two different game plans. But I would say this team plays more into what we've got this year than the team they had last year. This year is just a different personality of their team.

Question for Ebony Rowe: It has been like this the whole tournament...were you all just dead-set on being able to get the ball into you?

"People think that if they triple-team Ebony Rowe, then we aren't going to win. It doesn't matter, we have Kortni Jones, we have Icelyn Elie and we have Janay Brinkley; people that step up and make plays. Once they realize that, that is what frees me up to go to work and make plays. I have been saying all year that we are such a dangerous team because we all know how to play together, and we all play really well together."

You got to the free throw line quite a bit. Is that kind of indicative of how determined you were?

"Definitely. Coach tells me all the time that when I am getting to the free throw line, then that's when I am being aggressive. It is something I have really worked on this year. I struggled a lot with it last year. I was just confident in just attacking and knew I had to put those in for my team."

Question for Kortni Jones: After last year, does it feel better to know that you have that NCAA Tournament bid locked up?

"Oh for sure. It feels a lot better to know that your name is going to get called, without a doubt. Last year, we were on pins and needles, but this year we know, our name will pop up."

Can you talk a little bit about Shanice? She hasn't been starting for a while, and she comes in and has the big basket there in the end.

"Shanice is a team player and that is what I love most about her. She hasn't been starting in the last eight or nine games, but she didn't take it personal and she didn't get down, she knew that is what was best for the team and that is what the coaches thought was best. She steps up and she makes big plays. I am actually not surprised because she's done it before. She goes in there and she goes hard, and sometimes you can see it on her face that she is going to make that layup. We are just very proud, lucky and thankful that she made them."

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