The 2013-14 season for the MTSU women's basketball team came to an end on March 23 with a 55-36 loss in the first round of the 2014 Women's NCAA Tournament to Oregon State.
The Lady Raiders finished the season with a record of 29-5, 15-1 in Conference USA. It also made history this season by winning the C-USA regular season and tournament title in its first year in the league.
“I had an enjoyable time coaching these girls,” MTSU head coach Rick Insell said. “I do not think a lot of people expected them to do what they did. You take away the last game, and that is what a lot of people will remember, including me and them. They won 29 games, and that is what you got to focus on. That is a fantastic season. There are a lot more pluses than negatives.”
Of course, the Lady Raiders were led by six seniors, who each will be missed by the program. They included guards Janay Brinkley and Laken Leonard, forwards Ebony Rowe and Lauren March and centers KeKe Stewart and Janiece Johnson. Each of them played a big role in the team's success this season.
“They are very close to me,” Insell said. “They gave us tremendous leadership on the floor, in the classroom, and in the community. They gave up their time and everything they had on the floor. They were all very important to what we did at MTSU.”
Rowe finished out her Lady Raider career as statically the best player in program history and this year's C-USA Player of the Year. She holds the school record in points (2,453), rebounds (1,410) and several other categories. Rowe is also the first Lady Raider player and one of nine active players to score at least 2,000 points and grab1,000 rebounds in her career. She also helped the team achieve a record of 103-28 during her four seasons at MTSU. By the way, she will graduate with a 3.74 GPA in Physics.
“She was a fantastic leader on and off the floor,” Insell said. “She was an undersized post, and she played against one of the most competitive schedules in the last four years in the country. To do what she did with all of those double-doubles, the scoring, rebounding and games played record is unreal to think about it. We convinced her that she would be a special part of this recruiting class, and she helped us move this thing to the next level.”
In the meantime, Insell will return several key contributors for next season, including guard and former Siegel star Shanice Cason, fellow guard Caroline Warden, and this year's C-USA Freshman of the Year and former Riverdale star forward Olivia Jones.
“The future does look bright, and I am really excited,” Insell said. “That is the thing about coaching, you finish it up and you are on the low of lows. Then, you go home and start looking at next year. We have a lot of great ladies to build to, and we have already started. That is what is exciting about coaching Division I basketball at MTSU. You got one group going out, and then you start looking at the new group you want to bring in.”
This season was one to remember for MTSU as it defeated quality opponents like Miami (Fla.), Mississippi State, UCF, USF and Clemson ‑‑ all on the road. The only regular season losses the Lady Raiders suffered were to SEC powerhouses, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas.
While in its first year in C-USA, MTSU went 15-1 in a very competitive league, with its only loss coming at Southern Miss on Feb. 5. However, the Lady Raiders soundly defeated the Golden Eagles in the C-USA championship game on March 15, 84-55, to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“The teams were very good from top to bottom,” Insell said. “It was better than I thought. Every night the teams we played were very competitive. We never had a run- away game. The conference is competitive, and I am having a good time being in C-USA. It is exciting, and it is going to be a great run.”
It was the sixth consecutive trip to the NCAAs for the Lady Raiders, which put them on a list with 15 other schools, including Tennessee, Connecticut and Notre Dame, who have made six or more straight appearances in the field of 64. However, MTSU has not won a first-round game in the tournament since 2007. It will be a goal for the Lady Raiders heading into next season.
“You do not measure a program by wins and losses in the NCAA Tournament,” Insell said. “You measure a program on what they did through the years. I really do not think about that. One of the things we look at during the beginning of the year is we do not start talking about is we got to take it two or three deep in the NCAA Tournament. Our goal is to get to the Elite 8. It is unfortunate we have hit a snag or two. I do not dwell on that. I look at the body of work. There are a lot of programs out there that would change places with me right now. Are we satisfied that we are going out in the first round? Absolutely not. We do not bring up that we’ve got to go deeper in the NCAA Tournament.”