Lady Raiders rolling as C-USA play begins

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Lady Raider senior forward Ebony Rowe receives a commemorative ball for joining the 2,000-point club prior to the Jan. 2, 2014, game against Tennessee Tech at the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (Photo courtesy of MTSU Athletics)

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- History will be made Wednesday when the MTSU women's basketball team plays its first ever Conference USA game against old Sun Belt Conference foe North Texas at Murphy Center.

The opponents are two of four teams that made the move from the Sun Belt to C-USA this season. Before the season started, the Lady Raiders were picked to win the conference.

“We are very excited,” MTSU junior guard Shanice Cason said after the Lady Raiders’ 84-53 win over Tennessee Tech on Thursday. “We want to make a very good impression. We want to say we are here, and we are not going anywhere. We are here to win this.”

During the non-conference season, MTSU won 11 games, including 10 straight against several teams from power conferences. Among those were victories over Miami (Fla.), Mississippi State, Central Florida, South Florida and Clemson. Now, the Lady Raiders hope to continue that success as they enter C-USA play.

“Not only is it hard competition, it’s a variety of competition,” MTSU senior forward Ebony Rowe said. “Every team we have played has been different, and we have seen a little bit of everything. It is just preparing us, especially our young players. It got them great exposure early, and now they are basically fearless to play anybody.”

All 16 teams in the league finished non-conference play over the weekend. The Lady Raiders have played one of the toughest schedules in the nation.

As of Thursday, MTSU was fourth in the non-conference standings.

Heading into the weekend, UTEP and East Carolina were the leaders with with equal 11-1 records. Southern Mississippi was third at 10-2, and MTSU is 11-3.

C-USA's overall RPI ranking is No. 13, with the Lady Raiders having the top RPI rating at No. 18. Four other teams are ranked in the early 100s. Also, the league has a 60-percent winning percentage against other Division I competition, which puts it ninth overall in the nation.

“It is a big step for us going to Conference USA,” said Cason, a former Siegel High School star. “The Sun Belt, we came in and swept that. With that being so high, that gives us a better chance for a better seed in the NCAA tournament. All we want to do is get to the NCAA tournament.”

Like all conferences nationwide, C-USA is loaded with talent, including Florida International’s senior Jerica Coley, who had her jersey retired earlier this season.

Coley was named C-USA preseason Player of the Year, and she is currently ranked second in the nation in scoring at 28.5 points per game. Last week, she was named C-USA Player of the Week after averaging 34 points per game. The Lady Raiders head to FIU on Feb. 12.

Other C-USA players to watch this season include Rice senior forward Jessica Kuster, UTEP senior forward Kayla Thornton and Southern Mississippi senior point guard Jamierra Faulkner. All three players were named to the preseason C-USA Team.

During its time in the Sun Belt Conference from 2001-13, MTSU won seven SBC regular season and seven SBC tournament titles. MTSU hopes to continue the success in a new conference.

“We just need to stay focused and keep playing hard,” Rowe said. “Playing together and everyone steps up on this team, and that is what I love about us. Every night it is somebody different, so if we keep playing like that I do not think anyone is going to stop us.”

The 2014 C-USA Women's tournament will be held in El Paso, Texas, with the title game tipping off at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 15. It will be televised on the CBS Sports Network.

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Basketball, Ebony Rowe, Lady Raiders, MTSU, Shanice Cason, Sports
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