EL PASO, Texas - No. 22/25 MTSU’s explosive offense helped the Blue Raiders prevail 84-55 over Southern Miss, giving the Blue Raiders their first Conference USA Championship title. The victory marked the 14th conference tournament title in program history and clinched the school's 17th NCAA Tournament berth.
2014 Conference USA Player of the Year Ebony Rowe poured in 23 points and the Raiders forced 20 turnovers to slow down the high-powered attack of second-seed Southern Miss. MT advances to the big dance for the 10th time out of the last 11 years.
Rowe was named the 2014 Tournament MVP for helping the Blue Raiders (29-4) receive the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The 29 victories are the second most in program history, just one shy of the 2006-07 squad. The Lady Eagles (26-6), who had their 13-game winning streak snapped, will learn their postseason fate on Selection Monday.
“What a game. We didn’t expect it to be that blown out, but once we get on a roll, we’re like that. They were very coachable, some of the things we went over today and we went out and executed it,” said MTSU coach Rick Insell. “Their press bothered us a little bit, but I think we got more transition points against their press and really than we did against our set offense. What we did, is attack the basket to score, instead of attacking that press and to set our offense up.”
While both teams shot well (USM 23-55, 41.8 percent and MTSU 29-58, 50.8 percent), the Blue Raiders separated themselves through their pressure defense and by crashing the offensives boards. MTSU enjoyed a 25-10 advantage in points off turnovers, while using 17 offensive boards to out-score the Lady Eagles, 19-9, in second-chance points.
C-USA Freshman of the Year Olivia Jones buoyed Rowe with a double-double, notching 18 points and 14 rebounds. Also reaching double figures was KeKe Stewart with 15 and China Dow matching a career-high 11. Rowe also hurt USM with her passing, threading the needle on double teams to post five assists.
“I said it the other night, I feel like Middle Tennessee is one of the top 20 programs in country. We’re not the best program in the country, but we’re in the top 20,” Insell said. “If you look at what we did in the NCAA Tournament and how many times we’ve been there. We’re real proud of what our program stands for, and proud of our university and community. ”
Southern Miss scored the first five points of the contest to grab the early lead before Middle Tennessee struck back in the form of a 15-7 surge. Rowe capped it with a triple to give the Blue Raiders a 15-12 advantage with 10:32 to play in the period.
The Lady Eagles regrouped and scored eight of the game's next 10 points to stake a 20-17 advantage with 5:35 to play in the period. Middle Tennessee didn't flinch, though, relying on its vaunted defense to take control of the game heading into halftime.
USM scored just two points- a jumper by Faulkner-while being forced into five turnovers in the sequence, helping fuel a 13-2 run by the top seed to secure a 30-22 advantage at the break.
It was back-and-forth action over the first several minutes of the second stanza, and the difference was just 10 (41-31) with 15:30 to play in the game after a Tamara Jones triple. Similar to the first half, though, Middle Tennessee found another gear, with a 16-2 surge that spanned seven minutes putting the Lady Eagles in a hole too deep even for their high-octane offense to overcome.
The margin swelled to as many as 31 at one point, in part due to USM fouling down the stretch.
After securing their 17th NCAA berth, MTSU will host a selection show event open to the public on Monday in the ballroom of the new Student Union Building on campus. Doors open at 5 p.m. with the show starting at 6 p.m. on ESPN. The event is open to the public.