From the moment Cisti Greenwalt swatted the opening tip-off until Alesha Robertson sank her fifth trey of the game, Texas Tech dominated Middle Tennessee State University; ahead at the half by 46-29, Tech earned its way back to a Sweet 16 berth 80-69 in a second-round NCAA tournament game billed as the battle of the Lady Raiders.
Middle Tennessee State didn't go quietly; in the second half, the blue-clad Tennesseeans outscored Tech 40-36; but the hole they had dug for themselves in the first half, according to head coach Stephany Smith, was just too deep.
"It's a little harder to swallow this season than it was 12 months ago," Smith said in the post-game press conference in Reunion Arena. "Twelve months ago, at Notre Dame, in the second round, there was a point where I sat down, I looked at my staff, and I said, ‘We might get beat by fifty.'
"How we pulled back and fought and got back within 13, I guess, is a lot like how we pulled back and fought tonight," Smith said. "Obviously Marsha Sharp is a phenomenal coach, and has a tremendous program and a fine basketball team, but it's a lot more disappointing to us today, because we felt very prepared, and felt like we had an opportunity to win."
Smith had gambled on giving Erin Grant shooting room in her game plan; because MTSU concentrated so hard on the post game, Texas Tech's perimeter opportunities bloomed like flowers in the sun. Sophomore sharpshooter Alesha Robertson poured in 25 points for her Lady Raiders – a point total matched only by MTSU All-America candidate Patrice Holmes in the ballgame – and by halftime had accumulated 15 on a blistering 6-of-10 performance including three of six attempts from three-point country. Robertson never went to the free throw line in the ball game; Holmes shot 5-of-9 from the charity stripe.
"The beautiful display of three-point shots that Alesha rained in from the weak side," Smith said, "you know – that's not the intent of our defense."
The 25-point total, earned on 10 of 18 shooting including five of 11 free throws, marked Robertson's best scoring performance since January 15, against Colorado, when she poured in 27.
Tech's victory didn't come from a single hot hand Monday night, though – four Lady Raiders finished in double figures for Tech. Greenwalt earned 19 points, while starting point guard Erin Grant finished the game with a dozen. Junior LaToya Davis, Tech's 6-1 power forward, had a double-double Monday night with 11 points and a career high 16 rebounds. Davis, a season-long league-leader in field goal accuracy, hit four of the six shots she took from the floor and three of the six free throws she earned. She finished the game with a block and a steal and played all 40 minutes.
The Lady Raiders' freshmen, Darrice Griffin and Judith Smith, also spent time in the game in the first half. Griffin came in to relieve Greenwalt; she picked up an assist before getting her second foul in four minutes. Smith, to the delight of the crowd, sank a three from virtually her first touch of the ball.
Five thousand, four hundred and thirty-six fans attended the game.
MTSU recovered some of its aggressiveness in the second half and made a run from the 17:08 mark, cutting Tech's lead from 50-29 to 52-41 at 13:36. Holmes caromed a shot and Greenwalt yanked down the rebound, sending an outlet pass to Robertson for yet another three. Down 41-55, the blue-clad Lady Raiders battled back when Chrissy Givens knocked down a shot; Robertson's next trey went awry and Greenwalt, going up for the board, became entangled with blue uniforms. At the charity stripe, she sank the first but missed the second, and Ditte Jakobsen snatched the rebound. She fed Givens for two more points; off a sizzling assist by Robertson, Dabbs answered with a Tech bucket.
On the next possession Greenwalt was called for a foul to send Givens to the line; she sank both, but Erin Grant answered on behalf of Tech to send the Lady Raiders up 60-47. Givens' miss put the ball in Davis' hands and she sent it to Grant, who pushed the ball up court in a hurry but missed her short jumper; the foul call on the rebound sent Davis to the line for Tech. She hit the first half of her one-and-one but not the second; Holmes snatched the board and MTSU tore off down court, where Givens popped the ball through the basket.
An exchange of turnovers ensued; Robertson earned her 19th and 20th points pushing the Tech lead to 63-49, but Holmes answered with a three at the 7:30 mark. Four Middle Tennessee misfires later, Greenwalt picked up her third personal foul and MTSU's Tia Stovall converted the first half her free throws to bring the Lady Raiders back within 10.
Off Robertson's miss Davis, going after the rebound, got into a tie-ball; after the ensuing inbound, she dropped in another two points for the Lady Raiders. Stovall and Grant swapped buckets; Robertson broke up the inbounds pass but Holmes swiped the ball back at the top of Tech's key and fed Givens for a fast-break bucket.
Grant brought down the ball and counseled patience; the passes went to Dabbs then Grant then Robertson then back to Grant; a misfire later Davis bounced into the sky to snatch the rebound and stick the put-back, sending Tech ahead 71-59.
MTSU's Stovall hit her next shot from underneath; she got the third point the old-fashioned way on a foul called against Robertson, and cut Tech's lead to 71-62 with 3:56 to go in the ball game.
Grant answered; Holmes missed, and in the scrimmage for the rebound, Krystle Horton drew the foul from Davis. When the second half of Horton's one-and-one went awry Davis yanked in the rebound, but a pass to Dabbs missed its mark. Horton's next shot didn't go anywhere near the rim; Greenwalt plucked the errant sphere from the air and shot a pass to Grant, who returned the favor from mid-court to feed Greenwalt an easy lay-up. Down by twelve, the Lady Raiders called a timeout; Horton came back to sink a basket but Grant answered.
With 1:19 to go Tech led 77-65; Holmes passed to Stovall, who sank a quick bucket underneath, but Tech answered via Robertson's final three. Holmes put up the last desperate effort, but the ball bounced off the back iron into Robertson's grasp as the buzzer sounded.
"We were not the aggressive basketball team we've been all season," Smith said. "I really believe this team felt like they could win this basketball game, but that wasn't what you saw from our team in the first half. I didn't want to take the approach, I don't think they did take the approach, that ‘we're in the second round, we're just happy to be here, we won a game -- that may have been the approach we took last year; but seriously, this team was committed to get itself to the Sweet 16."
The Lady Raiders now travel to Philadelphia to meet the winner of Tuesday's game between the University of Tennessee and Purdue.