The Lady Raiders begin another run toward another NCAA tournament berth starting Thursday, Nov. 1, with an exhibition game at the Murphy Center against Alabama-Huntsville.
Kortni Jones (24) looks to make a pass to a fellow Lady Raider during an Oct. 4, 2012, practice inside the Murphy Center at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (Photo courtesy of MTSU Athletics/B. Lambert)
Although the team is favored to win another Sun Belt Conference title, the players and coaches said they are focused on reach a higher goal as well.
“We are extremely focused coming off the two losses at the end of last season, and it kind of puts that hungry taste in your mouth,” senior guard Kortni Jones said Wednesday in an interview. “We are ranked, so that is a little motivation than we’ve had in previous years.”
Jones is talking about the 71-70 overtime loss Oct. 6 to Arkansas-Little Rock in the finals of the 2012 SBC Conference Tournament.
A few days later, MTSU’s season ended in the first round in the NCAA tournament to in-state rival, Vanderbilt, 60-46.
Even with the two-game losing streak which finished last season, three preseason magazines have the Lady Raiders ranked in the top 25. The team has also been picked once again to win the SBC Eastern Division and recently had three players selected to the All-SBC First-Team.
But, the Lady Raiders are used to the high preseason expectations.
“I think our kids would have been upset if we weren’t picked first,” head coach Rick Insell said Tuesday during the SBC Media Days press conference. “I think they expected that. We looked forward to that coming out. We felt like we probably should be ranked the No. 1 team in the East. It’s no shoe-in. We’ve got to go out and win it.”
As for players, the Lady Raiders return all five starters from last year’s team, including the three picked for the SBC Preseason First-Team, Jones, senior forward Icelyn Elie and junior forward Ebony Rowe.
The other two returning starters are sophomore guard star Shanice Cason, a former Siegal High School standout, and junior guard Laken Leonard.
Cason said she believes experience will help the team this season.
“Our chemistry is awesome,” Cason said Wednesday afternoon. “During practice, everybody is going at it. Not only the five starters coming back, but it’s everybody. That is what coach has preached. Chemistry is something we have to have to compete in the NCAA tournament.”
Besides the stronger bond that has come from experience, the team also knows it has to play another tough non-conference schedule in order to get ready for Sun Belt play – and a chance to compete in the postseason.
The Lady Raiders begin the regular season Friday, Nov. 9, with a preseason game against Kennesaw State at the Murphy Center.
Two days later, they will face either Memphis or Grambling in the next round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.
Other non-conferences games include facing off against Tennessee and Kentucky universities.
“We’ve got to win some of those games early, and if we do it’s going to set the table for a great season,” Insell said. “We’ve been telling our young ladies the fact that in the last four or five years the team that has won the WNIT tournament has gone on and won the NCAA tournament. You know, why not us? Why couldn’t that happen to someone like Middle Tennessee?”
Tip-off for the exhibition game against UA-Huntsville is at 5:30 p.m. at the Murphy Center.