MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- Just as the Lady Raiders were about to tip off the season, many fans had concerns.
And why not? The Lady Raiders lost two 1,000-point scorers in Kortni Jones and Icelyn Elie to graduation, and most wondered who would fill their shoes.
It has been done by committee to date for the Lady Raiders, who are off to a 9-3 start and winners of eight straight following a 59-44 victory Saturday over South Dakota State at Murphy Center.
“South Dakota State has a good team,” MTSU coach Rick Insell said. “They’ve proved they’ve got a good team. They’ve been going everywhere, all over the country and playing with people. They beat Penn State when they were ranked No. 10 in the country.
“They went into Green Bay. At that time, Green Bay was ranked. They still have a tough schedule ahead just like us. They have a very good basketball team. They’re picked to win their conference and you’ll probably see them in the NCAA tournament. It was an NCAA type game today.”
Not surprisingly, the Lady Raiders have been led by senior forward Ebony Rowe, who averages 23.2 points and 11.6 rebounds a game.
She earned her second Conference USA Player of the Week honor Monday after helping the Lady Raiders to victories over Central Florida, South Florida and South Dakota State last week. She scored 20 points and had 11 rebounds against UCF, added 25 points and 11 boards against USF and poured in 29 points grabbed 13 rebounds against SDSU.
Rowe, however, gives much credit to her supporting cast, whether it be junior point guard Shanie Cason, senior forward KeKe Stewart (two 20-plus point games last week), senior guard Laken Leanord, freshmen Olivia Jones or China Dow.
“We are a very dangerous team because on any given night anybody can step up,” Rowe said. “Whether it’s scoring, whether it’s rebounds, or just being the defensive stop we need. Down in Florida, KeKe (Stewart) stepped up and had two huge games. I think that makes the team dangerous. We have a full team of girls that come in here and work so hard every day.”
MTSU’s non-conference record is impressive considering it has faced the likes of Top 6 foes Tennessee and Kentucky, along with Arkansas and last week’s opponents.
The Lady Raiders currently boast a No. 17 RPI, which weighs heavily in terms of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. MTSU earned six votes in this week’s Associated Press poll, ranking it No. 35 in the country.
“Not many teams could have done what we’ve done,” Insell said. “I don’t know many teams, maybe a Connecticut, maybe a Tennessee. I don’t know who else could have done what we did this week.
“Going into two hostile gyms, good programs, good teams in Central Florida, South Florida, and now come back and play a team that’s going to be ranked in the Top 30 before the year is over with. To win three games, that’s tough. That’s really tough. I’m proud of this team.”
The Lady Raiders face another tough road test Sunday when they visit Clemson for a 1 p.m. tipoff. MTSU then faces Tennessee Tech on Thursday, Jan. 2, before opening conference play at home on Wednesday, Jan. 8.
And to think, there were so many concerns going into the season.