Lady Tops’ rivalry with MTSU adds extra heat

Senior guard Amy McNear makes a jump shot during Wednesday night’s sparsely-attended game against Middle Tennessee. WKU lost the game, 72-66.

Cole Claybourn

Rivalries don’t usually need help to make the fire burn.

But even so, Middle Tennessee Head Coach Rick Insell poured a little gas on the fire of the rivalry between the Lady Toppers and MTSU this past weekend.

Insell took jabs at WKU for giving out more than 6,000 free tickets to area elementary students on “Spread the Red Education Day” after MTSU’s game against South Alabama on Saturday, saying the Lady Raiders had a “nice paying crowd, unlike a conference school up north.”

With the added fuel came even more heat for Wednesday’s game between the Lady Raiders and WKU.

Whether it was Insell’s comments or the rivalry itself, the Lady Toppers said there was added emotion to the game.

“I want to beat them,” junior forward Teranie Thomas told reporters on Tuesday. “This game gets me excited because you don’t want to lose to MTSU.”

The game itself lived up to its rivalry billing, remaining close for most of the game before MTSU escaped Diddle Arena with a 72-66 win.

Despite the snowy conditions outside, 462 fans still showed up to the game and made it sound like even more were in attendance. The small crowd included a strong showing from WKU’s student body and MTSU’s traveling fan base.

There were plenty of boos launched toward referees after contested calls and of course, several jabs shouted at Insell.

But aside from all the banter, Insell said it’s nothing but a good rivalry between two tradition-rich basketball programs.

“I say a lot of things to get the people here stirred up, but I have more respect for Western than any other program that we go play because of the fans here,” Insell said. “I know the fans don’t like me, and that’s why I like them — because they don’t like me.

“I’ve got respect for the teams. But the fans — you’ve got to stir them up a little bit and get in their heads. That’s part of coaching. I’ve always done that.”

If the Lady Toppers were chomping at the bit before Wednesday’s game, the loss at home to MTSU may only make the fire burn hotter.

It was WKU’s sixth straight loss to MTSU, something senior guard Amy McNear said was simply “frustrating.”

The Lady Toppers will get at least one more chance to avenge the loss when they travel to Murfreesboro, Tenn., on Feb. 27 for their final game of the regular season.

“We are big rivals, and both teams want to beat each other just as bad,” McNear said. “When we get this other chance, I think we’re going to take advantage of it. We’ve just got to come out and focus with intensity and try to pick up a win down in Murfreesboro.”

Along with McNear, the next trip to MTSU could possibly be senior forward Arnika Brown’s final shot at knocking off the Lady Toppers’ main rival. Brown said the last thing she wants to do is to leave with the Lady Raiders having the upper hand.

“We’ve been rivals for years,” she said. “They’re a very good ball team, and so are we. So we’re just going to take advantage of the next opportunity and just try the best to get it done.”