|It was clear in Middle Tennessee’s 61-59 Conference USA quarterfinals win over Rice that senior Ty Petty didn’t want her C-USA career to come to an end Thursday night.
With her team trailing 41-39 going into the final quarter, Petty heroically rallied for 14 of her team’s 22 points in the last eight minutes, finishing with a game-high 26.
None were more important than the two free throws she nailed with one second remaining to put the Blue Raiders up by five, making a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Rice’s Nicole Iademarco essentially useless.
“I think I was rushing my shots, and coach pulled me aside and told me I needed to attack more,” Petty said. “I just had to attack, and when I did attack I got some of my other shooters open.”
The defending C-USA Tournament champion Lady Raiders (21-9) pushed their overall record in Conference USA tournaments to 8-1 with the hard-fought win. They are now 6-0 all-time against the Owls (18-13).
“We knew it was going to be a tough game,” Lady Raider Head Coach Rick Insell said. “We just instilled our will and were able to overcome all of the negatives that may have been out there, make a shot or two and do some things that win a basketball game.”
Things weren’t easy for MT offensively against C-USA’s top defense.
The Owls, who rank first in the league giving up 61.5 points per game, limited the Blue Raiders to 42 percent (22-for-52) shooting and 7-for-24 (29 percent) from 3-point range.
Perhaps no Lady Raider felt the suffocation of Rice’s defense more than C-USA’s second-leading scorer, Alex Johnson. The sophomore all-conference first-teamer who averages 20.9 points per game had just 11 on 4-for-5 shooting, creating a need for her teammates to step up.
“I think when we go away from our system it messes us up,” Petty said. “We depended on the three a lot, and we should have gotten [Johnson] and the other post players more touches.”
While they had issues getting things rolling offensively, the Lady Raiders’ defense kept them in the game. Rice managed to shoot 43 percent (23-for-54) and turned the ball over 17 times, leading to 17 MT points.
It was the defensive play by junior Abbey Sissom, a C-USA All-Defensive Team recipient, which drew the most praise from Insell.
Sissom was tasked with guarding Iademarco, the Owls’ leading scorer. After she scored 11 points in the first half, Sissom shut her down in the second. The only bucket the Rice redshirt sophomore made after halftime was her 3-pointer at the final buzzer.
“Coach just challenged me and told me I’m supposed to be on the all-defensive team and I wasn’t doing my job defensively,” Sissom said. “I had to get out there and make her uncomfortable, because, like he told me at halftime, I was letting her get too comfortable. I think the main thing was getting physical with her and not letting her get backdoor cuts.”
Sissom added seven points, while Gabby Lyon had 10 and six rebounds. Rebecca Reuter added five points.
With the win Middle Tennessee advances to the semifinals, where it will take on the winner of Thursday night’s Old Dominion and Southern Miss matchup.
The Blue Raiders beat Old Dominion, the tournament’s six seed, 80-63 on Feb. 9 at ODU. They fell to Southern Miss 81-61 on the road on Jan. 26.
“The hay is in the barn,” Insell said. “If you can’t motivate yourself to play in a tournament, your coach can’t do anything for you. What we’ll do is we’ll touch on whoever we have to play … and we won’t talk about coming in fired up. I think they’ll come in fired up.”
Friday’s semifinal game is scheduled for a 7 p.m. tipoff.