The top two women’s basketball teams in Conference USA, MTSU and UTEP met on the Murphy Center hardwood tonight, and it lived up to the billing. Both teams fought in front of a huge crowd for the top spot in the league. The winner on this night was MTSU 69-58.
“I was real proud of our basketball team tonight,” MTSU head coach Rick Insell said after the win. “It was two good teams playing. I knew coming in they had a real good basketball team. They had played some very tough competition. I am real proud of our girls. We got up to the line and created some havoc with our defense. Our defense won it for us again.
The Miners led for most of the opening half with the advantage getting all the way up to 31-24 with 2:53 left after a three-pointer by last week’s C-USA Player of the Week UTEP senior forward Kayla Thornton. However, she would leave the game about a minute later, because of an injury.
MTSU took advantage of the situation and it went on a 7-0 run to end the half and tie the score 31-31 at the half thanks to a bucket and a three-pointer by senior guard Laken Leonard and a couple of made free throws by freshman forward and former Riverdale star Olivia Jones.
On the very first Lady Raiders possession of the second half, senior forward Ebony Rowe drove past UTEP six feet, four inch senior center Kristine Vitola to score and drew the foul. Rowe missed the free throw, but Jones added one after a steal to give the Lady Raiders a 34-31 lead early in the second half.
The run continued when Rowe once again drove past Vitola to score the basket and Leonard nailed a three-ball to give the Lady Raiders a 39-31 lead, which it never gave up. The Lady Raider advantage got all the way up to 13, 69-56 with 31 seconds left in the game after a made free throw by Leonard.
“We really did not play the scoreboard, and I was proud of our players on that,” Insell said. “We came back each time and hit a three which cut it down. We took care of the basketball, and that was the difference. That gave us more chances.”
Thornton did not start the second half, but she came in early during the last 20 minutes. However with 5:08 left in the game she fouled out with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Last week, she averaged 22.5 points per game and 13.5 rebounds in being named C-USA Player of the Week. The Lady Raiders felt pretty good after the game about the way the entire team defended one of the top players in the league tonight.
Speaking of the Lady Raider defense, it held the Miners to a season low 58 points. UTEP had come into the contest averaging a C-USA best 81.1 points per game. The defensive pressure is something MTSU prides themselves on that during each game. MTSU only had 10 turnovers, while forcing 25 by the Miners.
“I think we did really well,” Rowe said. “I think it is real important to say just because it was my matchup. I did not just guard her tonight. We really believe in team defense, and we pride ourselves on being a nationally ranked defense. I think we pulled together. She still had a great game, but we got her out of her rhythm.”
Rowe finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds, while Jones added 17 points and 11 rebounds. Leonard added 11 points, and sophomore guard Caroline Warden chipped with 10.
With the win, the Lady Raiders streak extends to 13 as it heads to UAB on Saturday at 4 p.m. for another key conference game as it hopes to continue the momentum this weekend.
“We just need to continue to execute our offense, and we have been doing a really good job of that lately,” Warden said. “We just need to keep crashing the boards, hit our free throws and keep playing tough defense. We just need to continue to do those things.”