Today was a special day for 13 seniors on both the MTSU men’s and women’s basketball team as it said goodbye to the Murphy Center in winning fashion. The Lady Raiders came from behind to defeat UAB 68-58 to win the regular season Conference USA title. The Blue Raiders defeated Rice 65-41 to stay in the hunt for its own C-USA title.
The Lady Raiders trailed for most of the game, including being down as much as 11, 43-32 with 11:40 left. However, like all season this group of players never gave up, and made a great comeback. It was completed by MTSU senior superstar forward and all-time leading scorer in school history, Ebony Rowe.
With 4:18 left, Rowe converted a three-point play to cut the Blazers lead down to one, 53-52. On UAB’s next possession, MTSU junior and former Siegel star Shanice Cason caused Blazer Ashley Grimes to go over and back and forced a turnover.
The Lady Raiders took the lead for good with 3:44 remaining after Rowe was fouled trying to follow a missed put back. She nailed the two free throws to put MTSU ahead, 54-53, and it never gave it up the rest of the game.
“It is the best feeling in the world,” Rowe said after the win. “Would I have liked it to be a better game overall, of course? It was one of those atmospheres you dream of playing in as a kid. I could not ask for anymore, it was amazing.”
Fellow senior, center KeKe Stewart and Cason each nailed three-pointers to put the game away and it earned the Lady Raiders the regular season C-USA conference championship for the first time in school history. Also, MTSU earned the No. 1 seed in the upcoming C-USA tournament, which begins March 11 in El Paso, Texas.
“It is amazing to come out and get this big win,” Cason said. “We are the first team. We wanted to send a message to the rest of the teams. We are here to win it all. We are glad we did move conferences, and we are here to stay and compete.”
Rowe led the way with 22 points, while Stewart added 15, and Cason had 12.
The Lady Raiders honored outgoing seniors, Rowe, Stewart, Laken Leonard, Lauren March, Janiece Johnson, and Janay Brinkley after the win. During their four years at MTSU, this senior class had 99 wins with one left in the regular season, four regular season conference championships, and most likely four NCAA tournament berths.
“What a special group, they just never give up,” Lady Raiders head coach Rick Insell said after the win. “We are struggling offensively, and they were long and athletic. They were able to get in our passing lanes and well-coached.”
As for the Blue Raiders, it jumped out to a 9-0 lead to start the game and it never looked back to another home win on Saturday night. During the past three seasons, MTSU is 25-1 in home conference games.
“The fan base, we play to our identity, we play hard nosed defense, and we rebound the ball well,” MTSU senior forward Neiko Hunter said. “We love playing at home, because of the fan base.
Before the game, the Blue Raiders honored outgoing seniors, Kerry Hammonds II, Zane Gibson, Neiko Hunter, Tavarres Jefferson, Shaun Jones, Tweety Knight and Torin Walker. During its time inside the program, this senior class had 93 wins, the most in school history. It also led them, two seasons ago, to its first NIT appearance since 1988, and last seasons its first NCAA tournament berth since 1989.
“I think it is a great legacy, and we will be remembered,” Hunter said. “We got to keep winning and keep it going.”
Jones led the way for the Blue Raiders with 15 points, while Hammonds added 14 and Hunter had 12.
Both teams will finish the season on the road this week, the Lady Raiders travel to Tulane on Wednesday with tipoff at 7 p.m, while, the Blue Raiders head to UAB the following night also at 7 p.m. as it tries to stay in the race for the No. 1 seed in the upcoming C-USA tournament. Heading into tonight’s game, four teams were tied for first in the standings, MTSU, Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech and Tulsa.