Story by Calvin White / Contributing Writer
In college basketball, the month of March and the word adversity go hand in hand. The Lady Raiders were down double digits early, but that didn’t matter as they clawed their way back for a 55-53 win over the Vanderbilt Commodores in the sweet 16 of the WNIT.
“What a heck of a game,” Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Insell said. “Both teams played hard. Both teams executed at times and both teams got sloppy at times but you have to give credit to both teams. They battled and battled and our team battled and battled. I’m proud of our team and we’ll take it from there.”
Kseniya Malashka has had some big moments off the bench all season for the Lady Raiders, but none bigger than when she stepped to the free throw line with 8.8 seconds to go and knocked down two shots to give Middle Tennessee a 55-53 lead and ultimately decide the game.
“I wouldn’t say I was doubting myself, but when I talked to Coach Rick, I calmed myself down,” Malashka said. “I wasn’t even listening to what they were saying in the huddle, I was preparing myself.”
Dor Sarr was a key contributor in flipping the switch from the first half to the second for the Lady Raiders, scoring 11 of her 13 points in the second half. Sarr knocked down a 3-pointer at the third quarter buzzer to give MT a 43-41 lead heading into the final frame.
‘I think it comes down to that I work every day on those shots,” Sarr said. “Sometimes people tell me ‘Wow, those shots are crazy.’ But I’m like, ‘Maybe it seems to you crazy, but I work on them every day.’ So, I do have confidence in my shot.”
Early in the first quarter, senior Alexis Whittington had to be helped off the court after a hard collision with Vanderbilt’s Sacha Washington. Whittington brings an intensity to the game that the Lady Raiders knew they would need to win a game like this.
“For all of us, we knew how intense this game was,” Whittington said. “We knew this could be our last game on this court with this team. We weren’t going to lose. With the fans coming out, we have to come out here and give everything we have.”
With seven made 3-pointers in the contest, the Lady Raiders set a new single season record for made 3-pointers with 319 so far. The previous record was set by the 2009-10 team.
Vanderbilt dominated the opening quarter, jumping out to a 21-10 lead heading into the second period after making 75 percent of their shot attempts.
The Lady Raiders chipped away at the Commodore lead during the second quarter to bring themselves to within eight heading into the halftime break, trailing 29-21. The Commodores were just 3-for-14 from the field in the quarter.
When Vanderbilt visited the Murphy Center back in November, Middle Tennessee came away with a 55-46 victory but first year Vanderbilt head coach Shae Ralph knew that her team would get better along the way. After all, when you play and coach under Hall of Famer Geno Auriemma, quitting isn’t exactly something you do.
“I think the growth you see on the court is obvious,” Ralph said. “You guys don’t even know about the growth off the court coming together as a team. This group went through a lot. The last five years haven’t been easy for this young group of women. Four of my five starters hadn’t played in two years. The improvement honestly has been immeasurable.”
The Lady Raiders turned it on in the third quarter, outscoring the Commodores 22-12 while shooting 7-for-11 from the field and knocking down 4-of-6 3-point attempts.
In the fourth quarter, MT made just enough big plays down the stretch to pull away with the victory. Both teams combined to go 5-of-18 from the floor.
The Lady Raiders will now hit the road and head to Ohio where they will take on Toledo in the elite eight round of the WNIT. Tipoff is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. Central time on Monday