MTSU's women showed incredible moxie in the second half against Arizona State but came up short in a hard-fought battle, falling 61-60 in the third-place game of the Gulf Coast Showcase Sunday.
Freshman Courtney Whitson's clutch 3-pointer provided the Lady Raiders (5-3) with their only lead of the game, 61-60, with 1:01 remaining, and erased what had been a 12-point Arizona State (5-2) advantage early in the third quarter.
On the cusp of a sterling comeback and upset, MTSU's hopes were dashed when Robbi Ryan connected on two free throws with 29 seconds remaining to give the lead back to Arizona State, 61-60. Anastasia Hayes' 15-footer at the buzzer came up short as the Lady Raiders' upset bid was denied.
"It's a tough loss against a good team," MTSU coach Rick Insell said. "Our young ladies battled and gave great effort to come back and take the lead. I hate they couldn't be rewarded with a win for their effort in the comeback but a lot was gained for us this week.
"We came (to the Gulf Coast Showcase) to play tough competition, see where we stack up and get better. We played exceptionally well in beating Auburn, had a chance to beat a really good Arizona State team in the final minute and competed with a nationally-ranked Gonzaga team outside of a five-minute stretch in the third quarter. We gained a lot from this experience."
Anastasia Hayes led MTSU with 20 points and added four rebounds, while freshman Aislynn Hayes added 14 points and four rebounds. Each added two assists.
Forwards Charity Savage and Whitson battled on the boards and just missed double-doubles. Savage finished with eight points, a game-high 11 rebounds and a career-high five steals. Whitson was also strong inside with eight points and 10 rebounds to go with two steals and a blocked shot.
Alexis Whittington had another solid outing with six points on 2-of-2 shooting from 3-point range, three rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes of action.
MTSU trailed 30-20 at halftime and saw the Arizona State lead swell to 12, 32-20, when Ryan knocked down a mid-range jumper 10 seconds into the third quarter.
The rest of the second half belonged to MTSU, particularly three minutes of the last 3:35 when the Lady Raiders went on a 9-0 run to erase a 59-51 Arizona State lead.
Two free throws from Aislynn Hayes cut the deficit to 59-52 with 3:06 remaining. Savage came up with her fifth steal on the defensive end and Whittington followed with a 3-pointer to narrow the gap to 59-55 with 2:27 remaining.
The strong defense continued for MTSU when Whitson blocked a shot and Whittington dished a beautiful pass inside to Savage, who finished at the rim to make it a one-possession game, 59-57, with 1:32 remaining.
Savage collected her 11th rebound on a missed 3-pointer by Relli Richardson at the 1:15 mark. Whitson came through with the pressure trey on the offensive end to give Middle Tennessee the 60-59 advantage and it appeared things were continuing in the Lady Raiders favor when the defense forced a tough shot by Taya Hanson that was off the mark with 46 seconds remaining.
Anastasia Hayes corralled the rebound but was called for stepping out of bounds much to dismay of the Lady Raiders who thought she was pushed out of bounds. Arizona State retained possession and Ryan lost the ball driving inside. Anastasia Hayes was called for a foul with 29 seconds remaining to send Ryan to the charity stripe, where she connected on both attempts for the win.
Though the end result was not what MTSU wanted it could not overshadow what was a tremendous second half. The Lady Raider defense didn't allow an Arizona State field goal in the final 3:34 to give themselves a chance. They held the Sun Devils to 11-of-30 shooting in the second half and battled to an even 17-17 on the boards against the bigger team.
Offensively, the Lady Raiders came to life in the final 20 minutes when they shot 17-of-32 (53 percent) and outscored Arizona State 40-31.
The Lady Raiders return home to face Lipscomb in the annual Murfreesboro City Schools Education Day game Wednesday. Tipoff is 11 a.m