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Thu, Oct 23, 2014

SPORTS: Will Lady Raiders pass this season’s test?

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The calendar has now reached November, which means the leaves have fallen off the trees, the weather is colder and basketball is finally here.

The MTSU Lady Raiders began their first test for another Sun Belt Conference title and another trip to NCAA Tournament last Thursday evening, when they played host to University of Alabama-Huntsville in their opening preseason game.

As an exhibition game the results did not count, but this test against one of the best Division II programs still had its importance for the Blue Raiders.

During Rick Insell’s eight seasons at the helm of MTSU, the program has been about perfection. This season is no different.

All five starters back from last season’s NCAA tournament team, and three of them are on the Preseason All-SBC First Team – senior forward Icelyn Elie, senior guard Kortni Jones and junior forward Ebony Rowe. Also, the Raiders were picked to finish in the top spot of the SBC East Division.

The Lady Raiders’ first opponent, Alabama-Huntsville, might play in a lower division, but the Lady Chargers were no slouch either.

Coming into its season, Alabama-Huntsville was picked to win its conference, the Gulf South, and just made its first ever trip to the NCAA Division II Women’s Tournament last year.

Despite the oblivious differences between the programs, they are very familiar with each other. This is the third season in a row the schools have met during the exhibition season. MTSU won both previous meetings by a wide margin, including scoring at least 115 points in the two previous games. Last Thursday, was a little closer than usual with the Lady Raiders winning, 97-64.

However, that is not the point of these types of games.

Instead, the players were looking to see how this team came out in preparation for another tough non-conference schedule down the road against a more improved Lady Charger squad.

“I have seen a lot of improvement,” Jones said. “I think defensively they have gotten a whole lot better. They are more aggressive than I remember from last year. They were very prepared defensively to play our offense. I think they have gotten a lot better in the past few years.”

As for the Lady Raiders themselves, this and the rest of the exhibition games were, like the P-ACT, just practice tests.

The real deal comes tomorrow night in the first round of the Women’s Preseason National Invitational Tournament against Kennesaw State at the Murphy Center, and unlike the first two games, this test against the Owls counts. The team believes it has a lot of work to do before the big test to begin the 2012-13 campaign in the WNIT.

“We are going to come in the next day and have a hard practice just to get better,” Rowe said. “We know we did not play our best on Nov. 1, but it was a good start. We still have a long way to go before we get to that WNIT.”

The men’s version of the preseason NIT gets a lot of television coverage, because of the depth and quality of the teams involved.

However, the women’s tournament is just as good, but only the title game on Nov. 18 will be televised.

Here is a quick look at the some of the other teams in the tournament besides the Raiders. Eleven out of the field of 16 tasted postseason action last year. Watch out for North Carolina and Delaware, who are on the other side of bracket from the Raiders.  

North Carolina is led by one of the few coaches with at least 800 wins, Sylvia Hatchell and the program has won four out of the last eight ACC titles.

Delaware, on the other hand, has become a giant killer thanks to superstar and All-American Elena Delle Donne. Last season, the Blue Hens finished 31-2 and ranked 14th in the country. Both schools have MTSU ties.

On March 21, 2004, under former head coach Stephany Smith, the Blue Raiders upset the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament.

And from 2007-2010, Delle Donne’s brother, Gene played for the MTSU football team. However, the Blue Raiders will not face either team unless it makes the finals.

If the Blue Raiders defeat KSU tomorrow evening, they will face the winner of the Memphis and Grambling State contest on Sunday. The Lady Tigers finished second in Conference USA last season with 25 wins, its third consecutive 20-win season. While Grambling State is coached by Patricia Bibbs, who is the only coach with at least 500 wins at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

These first few games, even the ones that do not count, are just the beginning of a series of tests which will answer the question: Are the Lady Raiders good enough to get into the Big Dance and advance farther than ever before in school history?

David Hunter can be reached at dhunter@murfreesboropost.com.
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