|Middle Tennessee’s Conference USA Tournament title defense came to an end Friday night in the semifinals, as the Lady Raiders were beaten by Southern Miss, 59-54, in a nail-biter.
“Tip your hat to Southern Miss, they did a good job,” MT Head Coach Rick Insell said. “They made the plays they had to down the stretch in the last five minutes. That’s what the game’s all about.”
Just like in their quarterfinal game against Rice on Thursday, the Lady Raiders (21-10) needed late-game heroics to pull out a win. The difference is those heroics didn’t materialize against the stingy Lady Eagles (23-9).
Middle Tennessee held an eight-point lead with six minutes left, but USM finished on an 18-5 run to capture the win.
A Ty Petty layup with 2:12 remaining gave MT a three-point lead and hopes that they would hang on, but from there the Raiders never scored again while the Lady Eagles scored eight.
“It was a team defense error that we made,” Petty said. “We weren’t coachable, that’s what happened toward the end.”
Offense was hard to come by for the Blue Raiders for the second game in a row. After playing the conference’s best scoring defense in the tournament quarterfinals, USM brought the second-best (62.2 points per game allowed) on Friday and limited Middle Tennessee to just 32.8 percent shooting (19 for 58).
It wasn’t until the opening of the second half when MT finally found a little momentum. The Lady Raiders opened the third quarter on a 15-4 run to turn a 27-25 halftime deficit into a 40-31 lead with four minutes left in the frame.
Rebecca Reuter was the igniter in the run. The junior scored nine of her 15 points in the run and also came up with a few timely offensive rebounds. She finished with seven boards, three of which were offensive.
“I knew we had to rebound the basketball to win the game, so I was just trying to do my job,” Reuter said. “I wanted to win this for Ty [Petty]. It meant a lot to me.”
While they were struggling to find good looks offensively, the Blue Raiders did their part on the defensive end to keep the score close for much of the game. They limited Southern Miss to just 37.5 percent shooting (21 for 56) from the floor and 23.1 percent (3 for 13) from 3-point range, but some key breakdowns led to late scores for Southern Miss.
“We missed some easy defensive assignments,” Insell said. “We knew they were going to drive the basketball because all of them are so quick. They hit a couple of threes I didn’t account for … and that took the momentum right back away from us.”
The loss was just the second in 10 Conference USA Tournament games for Middle Tennessee. It is now 27-5 in conference tournament contests under Insell.
Petty finished with 15 points and a game-high nine rebounds in the senior’s final C-USA Tournament game.
“Being able to play for this university and Coach Insell and playing with this team is probably the best blessing I’ll ever come across,” she said. “My main thing was to get a ring on those freshmen’s hands. That was the big focus.
“Everything we’ve been through and playing with these girls, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. We didn’t come out like we wanted to, but I’ve enjoyed every minute in that uniform.”
Sophomore Alex Johnson added nine points, five rebounds and five assists while fellow sophomore Jess Louro added six points and five rebounds.
The Lady Raiders will wait to find out their postseason fate, whatever that may be.
“I’ll talk with [Athletic Director] Chris Massaro and we’ll take it from there to see what we’ll do,” Insell said. “You never know what will happen when those things come up. I think with our RPI like it is, they will have to look at us. But I don’t know.”