There have been some memorable freshmen suit up for MTSU's women in the Rick Insell era, and two Lady Raider newcomers are throwing their names into that hat this season.
Aislynn Hayes and Courtney Whitson, two Tennessee natives who were highly recruited high school seniors last year, have been integral pieces to the Lady Raiders’ season so far.
Whitson has started every game of her young MTSU career, while Hayes has entered the starting lineup the last 13 after coming off the bench the first three games of the season. Both rank among Conference USA’s best freshmen in multiple statistical categories. Whitson is third among the league’s first-years in rebounding (6.2 per game) while scoring 6.9 points per outing, and Hayes is third in scoring (12.5), assists (2.9) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.08) and first in 3-pointers made (30) and minutes per game (34.6).
In the rotation, Hayes has proven to be valuable bringing the ball up the floor, allowing sophomore 3-point specialist Taylor Sutton to roam the arc. Whitson provides an important post presence alongside senior leader Charity Savage, who leads C-USA and is seventh nationally with 11.7 rebounds per game.
“They have both performed very well for us,” Insell said. “Freshmen should not have to do as much as these two do for our team, but they have excelled and are a big reason for our success.”
The freshmen have looked more like upperclassmen in their first 16 games, according to Insell. That really shouldn’t be surprising, considering both were well-experienced on the hardwood prior to starting their college careers.
Whitson hails from Kingsport, a small town of a little more than 50,000 people in East Tennessee north of Johnson City. She was a four-year starter at Dobyns-Bennett High School, where she broke five program records and finished as the school’s all-time leading scorer (2,458 points) and rebounder (1,476) and second on the career assists list (319).
She was a Class AAA Miss Basketball finalist in her senior season, also being named a McDonald’s All-American nominee. That year, she also decommitted from East Tennessee State and flipped to the Lady Raiders.
“Once I came here, I knew this is where God wanted me,” Whitson said. “Coach (Insell) recruited me for my true position, and that’s what really drew me here. I’m a stretch four — I’m not really a five, but I’m not really a guard. That position fits me perfectly.”
Hayes finished a similarly incredible high school career with a McDonald’s All-American nominee of her own as a senior. She was a four-year letter winner at Riverdale High School and was named the MVP of the 2018 TSSAA Class 3A State Tournament, the third state title in a row for the Lady Warriors. Riverdale was a combined 133-7 in her four seasons.
In her sophomore year, Hayes and her older sister and MTSU teammate, Anastasia, helped lead Riverdale to an undefeated 34-0 season. The Lady Warriors were named high school national champions by MaxPreps and USA Today.
Hayes chose her hometown school over offers from North Carolina State, Memphis and others.
“Riverdale helped prepare me by giving me confidence in my shot and in myself,” she said. “Playing with older girls who were better than me helped me a lot, and at MTSU, I’m not as scared to come out and play. I know I just have to be prepared and play my game.”
At 10-6 this season and 2-2 in C-USA play, the Lady Raiders are in the thick of the race to get back to the postseason for the 17th straight year. They’re also trying to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.
Though freshmen, Hayes and Whitson will play a major role in helping MTSU reach its goals, and as the season wears on, they’ll enter some rarified air among Lady Raider first-years.
If Whitson stays in the starting lineup, she’ll enter a group of heralded Insell-coached post players who started at least 30 games in their freshmen year at MTSU. Ebony Rowe (2010-11) started 31 games, Olivia Jones (2013-14) started 33 and, most recently, Alex Johnson started 32 times in 2015-16.
Hayes is among the likes of Johnna Abney (30 starts in 2005-06), Anne Marie Lanning (26 in 2007-08), Shanice Cason (30 in 2011-12) and her teammate, sophomore Taylor Sutton (33 starts last year), as Insell-coached freshmen guard starters.
Of those all-time great Lady Raider freshmen, Rowe, Jones, Johnson and Sutton were named conference freshman of the year.
“I leaned on some of those girls that came before me, personally,” Whitson said. “That style of play that we have here is perfect for my game. It’s like a dream being here, honestly.”
The pressure will only be ratcheted up from here as MTSU enters the thick of the conference season with March looming. The Lady Raiders might be entering those dangerous waters with a young team, but don’t expect their pair of first-year starters to be intimidated as they’ve already proven they aren’t your average freshmen.