Photo by Gregory French | Staff Photographer
Middle Tennessee opened the 2016 Women’s NCAA tournament Saturday hoping to follow the men’s team with an upset of their own. The Lady Raiders came into Saturday’s contest against Florida State in College Station, Texas, with a defensive focus and sought to keep the Seminole guards from taking over play.
Ultimately, size and length took hold Saturday, with the Seminoles finding space and keeping Blue Raider guards at bay for most of the game. Florida State advanced to face the winner of the Texas A&M/Missouri State game in the second round with the 72-55 win.
“Just about every game the other team was stronger, taller, in some cases faster, but we were able to execute and win those games,” head coach Rick Insell said. “Today they were taller, stronger and faster, but they were able to — they were so athletic, they were able to cut off some of the passing lanes and get against some of our players, and it caused us a lot of problems.”
The first quarter of the contest between the two showed exactly what type of game we were in store for. Physical play, with a heavy post presence, became the key to Middle staying in the game early.
Leticia Romero was clinical in the first 20 minutes of the game, finding range early and finishing the half with 11 points. The Spain-native averages 11.2 points per game but showed no signs of stopping after her first half performance.
As most thought beforehand, Brea Edwards was the focus of the Seminole defense, and the senior finished the first half with just two points. Edwards did, however, get to the ball in other areas by securing five boards in the first two frames.
Fouls were the story of the first half, with Seminole star Shakayla Thomas leaving early with two fouls. She didn’t return for the rest of the first half. Ivey Slaughter and Kai James, two of the bigger forwards for Florida State, found themselves with three fouls each at the break.
Down 30-27 at the half, the Lady Raiders showed signs of good play, but a turnover-heavy second quarter hindered them and caused them to play catch up before the break.
Alex Johnson was the best player on the court for Middle Tennessee, finding space inside early and often, especially with Edwards non-existent for most of Saturday’s game. The C-USA freshman of the year kept the Lady Raiders in it, but, without any other real consistent scoring, the Seminoles were just too much to match.
Foul trouble bit Middle in the third quarter as well, with Alex Johnson playing with four fouls. Shakayla Thomas stayed out of foul trouble after her early issues, and ball movement helped the Seminoles find easy open looks.
Florida State put their foot firmly on the gas in the fourth quarter and shut down any looks the Lady Raiders had, while getting easy buckets in transition. With just over five minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Seminoles had extended the lead to 63-48.
Former Blue Raider, and all-time leading scorer, Ebony Rowe summed it up best late in the fourth quarter. Alex Johnson was dominant for most of Saturday’s contest but being in foul trouble killed drives.
Johnson finished the game with 22 points on 10-18 shooting and had four steals.
“Well, I’ve said all along, Alex was going to be a great player. I think that she gets in the weight room this summer, works on her strength and conditioning, works on her 3-point shot, she’s going to be — the sky’s the limit,” Insell said about Johnson. “She’s got great touch. She’s very intelligent. She loves the game. She’s got all the intangibles. Now it’s going to be up to her to take it to another level.”
Ty Petty ran the offense well at times, finishing with 10 points to go along with seven assists in the loss. Brea Edwards finished strong after struggling to find looks for most of the game. The senior, in her final game, finished with a double-double of 11 points and 10 boards.
“It definitely shows what type of team we are. We’ve grown a lot from the chemistry and just everything. We didn’t get here just by snapping a finger,” Petty said. “We worked and, I mean, we got here by our work ethic, coaches getting us ready. I mean, it’s definitely not over. We’re just going to get ready for next year, be able to finish strong.”
Four of the five starters for Florida State finished in double figures, with Romero leading the way with 17 points. Adut Bulgak finished with 15 points and nine boards, and Brittany Brown finished with a double-double, grabbing 10 boards to go with her 10 points.
Play was extremely even stats wise, with both teams having trouble with turnovers and fouls. Florida State shot 50 percent from three in the win, Lady Raiders just 16.7 percent.
The Lady Raiders closed out the 2015-16 season at 24-10 and can hang their hats on a fantastic run in the C-USA tourney, a conference title and another postseason birth.
“It was a great season for us. We won Conference USA this year, and we had a chance coming into this game to get a win, but it slipped away there in the fourth,” Edwards said after the game. “Overall, I’m super proud of this team, super proud of all my teammates.”
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