Blue Raiders take Sun Belt championship

Michael Casagrande

The Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship trophy sat only a few feet from the Western bench during the title game.

But for the Lady Toppers, that would be as close as they would get to claiming the hardware for the second year in a row.

Middle Tennessee State avenged last season’s championship game loss to Western in a 79-57 route.

MTSU scored the first 11 points of the game and never allowed Western to sustain a run long enough to pull even.

“They made sure when they had that opening run, to not let down,” coach Mary Taylor Cowles said. “We just shot poorly, we shot the ball awful.”

Junior guard Leslie Logsdon said Western did not suffer from a lack of intensity.

“I think we were too hyped up to play this game,” Logsdon said.

MTSU junior guard Patrice Holmes scored 18 points and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. Senior guard Elisha Ford, who had guarded Holmes in Western’s two wins over MTSU this season, was limited to 14 minutes of action. Ford was still feeling the effects of a strained muscle in her hip suffered in the semifinal victory.

MTSU senior forward Jennifer Justice had made only seven 3-pointers all season, but converted three on consecutive first half possessions. Cowles said Justice’s 3-point shooting was “very shocking.”

When Justice was through, the Lady Raiders led 20-7.

Sophomore guard Tiffany Porter-Talbert could not find a first half groove as she made only 2-of-8 field goals and went to the bench with 4:05 left in the half and three fouls.

To close the first-half fury, Holmes made a lay-up as the first half horn sounded to leave Western with one more defensive breakdown to discuss in the locker room.

At halftime, Western found itself down 35-22 due in large part to 9-32 (28.1 percent) shooting from the field.

Western showed signs of brewing a comeback in the opening minutes of the second half, scoring the first six points after the break. The fans in the predominantly Western Diddle Arena crowd were ready to erupt when Porter-Talbert missed a jump shot that would have cut the lead to five. From that point on, MTSU consistently eliminated any Western momentum.

“We did cut it down to five or seven,” Logsdon said. “We just could not get over the hump.”

Porter-Talbert scored 14 points and was named to the all-Tournament team along with freshman forward Carla Bartee.

While Porter-Talbert and Bartee were on the all-tournament team, it was Holmes who wore the Diddle Arena net around her neck after the game.

“We played probably as well a 40 minutes as we have ever played,” Holmes said. “To end the conference tournament with a ticket to the NCAA, you’ve got to be pleased with that.”

The loss eliminated all hopes of landing in the NCAA tournament, but the WNIT Tournament remains a possibility for the Lady Toppers.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected].