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Expectations high, Raiders usher in new era

MT welcomes challenging non-conference slate

November 6, 2013 · @MTAthletics

Middle Tennessee women's basketball enters a new era and expectations are the same. The Blue Raiders are the preseason favorites as the squad enters its first year in Conference USA. The coaches gave the Raiders eight first place votes, edging out long-standing member UTEP for first place.

With those similar expectations, the Raiders are ushering in six newcomers and losing two valuable starters from last year's Sun Belt Champion team.
Middle Tennessee put together a 25-8 campaign en route to a Sun Belt Conference regular season and tournament title. The Raiders made their seventh NCAA Tournament appearance in eight years under head coach Rick Insell. The fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance is a school record as the Raiders usher in their new era in C-USA.

The key cog of Middle Tennessee's successful 2012-13 campaign, Ebony Rowe, returns for her senior season. The Lexington, Ky., product is the only Blue Raider women's basketball player to reach 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in her career. The Honorable Mention All-American holds the school record for double-doubles and rebounds and is on the cusp of becoming the school's all-time leading scorer (currently seventh).

Returning alongside Rowe is several seasoned veterans from a year ago. Laken Leonard and Shanice Cason added 4.5 points and 4.2 points, respectively. Meanwhile, Janay Brinkley, MacKenzie Sells and Caroline Warden will add veteran experience in the backcourt. Seniors Janiece Johnson, Lauren March and KeKe Stewart are all expected to make significant contributions in the front court this season.

"I think a big thing is that we have some role players from the last couple years who now can't be role players anymore," noted Insell. "We've got to change their mindsets and they've got to gather some confidence, not only in themselves, but in their teammates."

Middle Tennessee added five freshmen this season: Shy Copney, China Dow, Olivia Jones, Ty Petty and Caya Williams. Pittsburgh transfer TiAnna Porter is eligible this season, while Cheyenne Parker will sit out the 2013-14 season due to NCAA transfer rules.

The Blue Raiders have one of the most daunting schedules in the Insell era. MT opens the season against No. 4 Tennessee before visiting Miami and Arkansas on the road. Two weeks later, MT welcomes No. 8 Kentucky to the friendly confines of the Murphy Center in a Sunday afternoon matchup on Nov. 24.

"We open up with Tennessee on Friday night, but then we move right on to Miami, Arkansas and Kentucky," Insell said. "It's about the process with us."

MT's schedule doesn't get any easier with a three-day tournament in the Gulf Coast Showcase (Nov. 29 - Dec. 1) with potential opponents such as N.C. State, Mississippi State or UCLA. The Raiders then play road matches at UCF (Dec. 16), USF (Dec. 18) and Clemson (Dec. 29). Defending Summit League Champion South Dakota State also returns to the Glasshouse on Dec. 21.

The Raiders open Conference USA play against ole Sun Belt foe North Texas on Jan. 8 at the Murphy Center. This season, the Raiders are featured on two Fox Sports Network games with a Feb. 15 road match at Florida Atlantic and a Feb. 22 home game against Charlotte. The C-USA Championships is held in El Paso, Texas on March 11-15.

Limited tickets are available for Friday's game against Tennessee. Season tickets are still available for purchase through the Blue Raider Ticket Office or online at GoBlueRaiders.com.

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