Middle Tennessee wins Sun Belt title, into tournament

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- Middle Tennessee's Ebony Rowe knew well what it was like to walk off the Summit Arena court after a difficult loss, having done so the last two seasons.

The junior made sure she didn't have to experience that feeling again Monday, scoring 20 points and grabbing 13 rebounds to lead the Blue Raiders to a 53-48 victory over Arkansas-Little Rock in the Sun Belt Conference championship game.

Middle Tennessee (25-7) earned its fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance with its first tournament title since 2010. Last season, the Blue Raiders lost in overtime to UALR before making the NCAA tournament as an at-large team.

"It feels a lot better to know you're going to watch and you're name's going to get called, without a doubt," Middle Tennessee guard Kortni Jones said. "Last year, we were on pins and needles.

"... This year, we know our name will pop up."

Two years ago, the Blue Raiders took part in the conference tournament just days following the stabbing death of teammate Tina Stewart. They lost their first game that year, as well as last season's championship game to the Trojans (24-8).

This time around, however, Middle Tennessee found a way to rally from seven points down in the second half to return to the top of the conference it has ruled for a decade. The Blue Raiders will make their seventh NCAA appearance in the last eight years.

"I never felt like that we would lose this tournament," Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell said. "I asked the good Lord, I said, 'These kids need to be rewarded' because they've gone through a bunch the last three years, a lot more than anybody across this country will ever know.

"... An ordinary student-athlete, it would have been tough on them. They're not ordinary, I'll tell you. They're way above average."

Middle Tennessee trailed by seven points in the second half before rallying after the Trojans went nearly seven minutes without a point.

The loss snapped a 13-game winning streak for UALR, which was led by Shanity James' 14 points. The Trojans, who were in the championship game for the fifth straight year, have been to the last three NCAA tournaments.

UALR coach Joe Foley wasn't counting on a fourth straight this year after Monday, thanks in large part to a mid-season stretch where the Trojans lost six of seven games.

"That would be tough, it'd be tough," Foley said. "... You've got to get your name up on that bracket early in the year, and if you don't get it up there it's hard to get up there at the end of the year.

"I think it will be very tough for us."

Middle Tennessee opened the game on a 8-0 run, behind 3-pointers by Jones and Caroline Warden and a layup by Elie, but UALR responded with a run of its own after missing its first six shots.

James' jumper put the Trojans up 9-8, the first of five lead changes in the half between the same two teams that went to overtime in the championship game a year ago. The Blue Raiders did rally to take a 15-11 lead after a jumper by Jones, but the four-point margin was the largest the rest of the half -- after which UALR held a 26-25 lead.

UALR led 42-39 after a jumper by Kiera Clark with 10:06 remaining. The Trojans, however, then went nearly seven minutes without a point, and Middle Tennessee went up 44-42 on two free throws by Rowe. UALR finally scored again with 3:08 remaining on a jumper by Taylor Gault and it then took a 46-44 lead after a basket by Clark.

Middle Tennessee, which won its fifth straight regular-season Sun Belt title this year, took control after that -- outscoring the Trojans 9-0 until a meaningless basket in the closing seconds by UALR.

Gault, UALR's leading scorer with an average of 13.9 points per game, finished with 13 points on 6-of-23 shooting.

"We couldn't make shots, I guess," Gault said. "... I guess we just couldn't do it."

Rowe made four free throws during the closing run, and she hit 12 of 15 free throws overall in earning Most Valuable Player honors. She also helped the Blue Raiders, who were making their 10th championship game appearance in the last 11 years, avenge last season's overtime loss to the Trojans.

The win is the seventh straight for Middle Tennessee, which split with UALR during the regular season and last lost to the Trojans on Feb. 16.

"I've been saying it all year, we're such a dangerous team because we know how to play together," Rowe said. "And we play really well together."