Story by Calvin White / Contributing Writer
Erasing a 22-point deficit wasn’t enough for the Lady Raiders to pull out a victory as a magical season came to an end in Murfreesboro Thursday night after Seton Hall defeated the Lady Raiders 74-73 in the final four of the WNIT to advance to the championship game and gave the Lady Raiders their first loss at home all season.
Kseniya Malashka’s biggest moment as a Lady Raider came last Thursday against the Vanderbilt Commodores when she knocked down two free throws to seal the victory with just seconds remaining. She had a chance to outdo herself against Seton Hall.
With 2.4 seconds remaining, Malashka asked for the ball to be put in her hands for the final shot. It was a straight line drive to the basket from the elbow while trying to split two defenders and draw contact for a foul.
The whistle never came as the shot attempt bounced off the front of the rim.
“I thought she got a body down low, and they didn’t make a call,” Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Insell said. “Don’t know why, but I’ve seen that happen. She went in and was able to get the ball up, but I still think there was too much stuff going on underneath. But still proud of (Malashka), she did exactly what we wanted to do.”
Malashka finished with 25 points off the bench while also pulling down nine rebounds to lead the Lady Raiders in both categories.
Dor Sarr was a key contributor in sparking the run that got Middle Tennessee back in the game after Seton Hall went on a 20-0 run in the second quarter to lead by as much as 38-16. Sarr finished with 19 points on five made three-pointers.
“I think the crowd really helped us get going in the second half,” Sarr said. “The run that we made: it came from defense. Once our defense locked in and we got stops and some steals, that’s when we got going. But we put ourselves in that position. Trailing by 22, it’s very hard to make a comeback.”
The first quarter looked more like a track meet than a basketball game with both teams on pace for over 70 shots from the floor and only one foul was called after the first 10 minutes of game time.
Cold shooting from the floor cost the Lady Raiders in the second quarter as they shot only 1-for-10 from the field to help ignite the 20-0 run from Seton Hall. A 10-0 run from Middle Tennessee at the end of the half would bring them within striking distance as they trailed 38-26 at the break.
The Lady Raiders poured it on in the third quarter, knocking down five 3-pointers to cut the Seton Hall lead to as few as five before the Pirates beat the third quarter buzzer to take a 57-50 lead into the final frame.
“When we got back to executing our offense, we got back into the basketball game,” Insell said. “We missed a lot of early shots. Good looks that we missed that we usually hit. If we hit those, it wouldn’t have been a 20 point lead.”
Middle Tennessee used an 11-0 run to take the lead in the fourth quarter. The two teams traded baskets until MT was up four with 23 seconds to play. A quick three-point play from the Pirates, followed by a jump ball on the next possession gave Seton Hall the basketball with 16 seconds to play. Sidney Cooks finished her night with 28 points with the last two being an off balance layup to give the Pirates a one point lead that they would not surrender after Malashka’s missed shot at the buzzer.
“We never quit,” Insell said. “They made some plays at the end. They excuted two or three times in a row and we had a couple breakdowns. So, I’m very proud of our young ladies. Hate it for our fans, hate it for our school, hate it for our team. They did everything they could do to win this game.”
Despite a heartbreaking loss, the Lady Raiders set or came close to setting multiple program records.
The 35 games played by the Lady Raiders this season are the most played by any Middle Tennessee women’s basketball team in program history, while the team’s 27 wins are the fourth most in a single season. Dor Sarr finished with 90 made 3-pointers this season, the third most ever made in a single season by a Lady Raider.
“It’s even above my expectations to be honest,” Sarr said after her lone year as a Lady Raider. “I knew I was coming to a great program, great coaches, great teammates. But this year is one of my best years in my life, to be honest. I think this program and this place, the people, everyone are amazing. So, I’m just grateful that I had the opportunity to play for this school and for the coaches and to play with those amazing girls.”