One way or another, a season's hard work will pay off for a Lady Raider squad Monday night in the final game of the NCAA preliminary rounds in Dallas' Reunion Arena. The MTSU Lady Raiders, 25-8 after their upset win Saturday night, face the No. 4 seed in the Philadelphia Regional.
That's another Lady Raider squad – the Texas Tech Lady Raiders. Tech overcame a scrappy University of Texas-Arlington squad by making adjustments in the second half to unleash power forward LaToya Davis, a 6-1 junior, for 26 points -- a season-high score -- and 14 rebounds, en route to a Lady Raider win 69-49 in the nightcap of Saturday's first round.
Giving up height at almost every position on the court, Middle Tennessee refused to give up intensity or determination. Powered by Patrice Holmes, who led all scorers with 26 points to earn her 9th-straight finish in double figures, the 25-8 Lady Raiders played heads-up defense to back their All-America candidate, a senior who earned first-team All Sun Belt honors and was named MVP of the conference tournament.
An injury in the first half deprived the ‘Pack of its top scorer when junior guard Billie McDowell dropped to the floor in pain just inside the 12:00 mark. McDowell's knee, already in a brace after an earlier injury, appeared to give way as she set up for a jump shot. Some moments later, she was assisted to the locker room where she remained for the rest of the game. NC-State head coach Kay Yow said afterward, "She had started off the game strong and was 2-4 when the injury happened. She has been the key person on the perimeter for us all year; seeing how the perimeter played after she went out, I would have to say that was a big blow.
"It hurt a lot, especially knowing how close the game was," Yow said. "The condition is that there are no broken bones, but there is some damage to the knee. We will have to do an MRI once we get back. There could be a range of things wrong with her knee. Her knee was already injured in the North Carolina game, and she didn't get to play in that match-up, and that affected us in that game even though we hung in," Yow said. "This was definitely a big blow to us."
Perhaps the deciding blow in the game, which Middle Tennessee State University went on to win by a whisker-thin margin courtesy of Holmes' jumper with 1.6 seconds left on the clock.
"It's obviously a very disappointing loss for us," Yow said. "We met a team who played hungrier than we did."
Lady Raiders head coach Stephany Smith said, "It wasn't very pretty basketball on our part, as far as taking care of the ball against their pressure. We did a pretty good job of boxing out. In the second half, they really emphasized going to their post players time and time again.
"We didn't do a very good job of keeping it out of their hands and they got that 10-point lead," Smith said. "We did a lot better after making a substitution with Lakira Boyd. She did a good job of keeping the ball out of Khadijah Whittington's hands, which I thought was a huge difference.
"It closed the gap between us. It was obviously an exciting game, where we had to make a lot of great plays and keep our poise to win it," she said. "Patrice Holmes is a great player. I've had numerous conversations about her play. She was the difference in this game, no doubt. She can beat you in so many different ways. The first few baskets of the game were huge, long-distance three-point shots. Today our team did not run that well offensively, and N.C. State had a lot to do with that.
"They were doing a good job at guarding Patrice. When she would give it up, they did a good job at not letting her get it back," Smith said. "We had some transition opportunities because we finally stopped allowing the ball into the low post, which I credit to our defense. We got transition baskets, which just gives you some options.
"N.C. State is just a very physical team, and I didn't realize that as much on tape, because in real life they gave us a lot of trouble on an offense we run every single day. We just got some transition offense, where we scored and just made some really big shots."
When her squad trailed by ten, Smith said she told them, "There was no place for doubts. They had worked hard to get where they were. If they thought we were going to lose, that obviously and inevitably, we would. I pointed out that we were down 10 points with 10 minutes to play; N.C. State had the ball.
"I told them it would be a good opportunity to make a stop," she said, "and that's exactly what happened. We got the turnover and then got the easy basket in transition; then we got a couple more, which of course gave our defense a little bit more energy. We had been a little lethargic, defensively, late in the game.
"I just told them, take it one possession at a time."
Said Holmes, "It's always our game plan to provide defensive pressure on the other team. I think we did a good job. It wasn't our best defensive game, but I think we did a pretty good job towards the end."
"It was a big win for us," she said. "North Carolina State has a very good program, and any win in the NCAA tournament is a big win."
Of the loss, NC-State's Whittington said, "It hurts, but then again, any game we lose hurts."
Whittington, a freshman, described the shift in momentum as the clock wound down: "We were trying to play good defense. I give them credit, because they went in and played and executed.
"They were playing with more enthusiasm, and you could see that they wanted it more," she said. "We just have to pull together as a team and keep working in the off-season."
The Lady Raiders' game starts 30 minutes after the conclusion of the game between No. 3 Texas and No. 6 Georgia to determine which team goes to the Sweet 16 in the Chattanooga Regional, with a scheduled tip-off at 6 p.m. Monday.