Red Wolves rally but come up short at Middle Tennessee

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (ASU) - Down by 23 points midway through the first half, the Arkansas State Red Wolves (7-12, 1-5) fought back to within seven points in the final two minutes, but the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee (15-5, 7-0) held on for a 71-62 victory Wednesday night in Sun Belt Conference women's basketball action at the Murphy Center.

Sophomore forward Jane Morrill led four ASU players in double figures with 17 points.  Junior guard Quinishia McDowell added 15, senior guard NeNe Hurst-McLennan scored 13 and junior guard Ashley Olvera finished with 11.  Morrill, McDowell and Hurst all shot at least .500 from the field and all three led the Red Wolves with seven rebounds each.  MTSU countered with 29 points and 11 rebounds from sophomore forwardEbony Rowe, with Rowe shooting 13-of-13 from the field on the night.

The Blue Raiders set the tone early, connecting on 5-of-7 three-point attempts in the first 10 minutes to jump out to a 29-10 lead.  Behind 61.3 percent shooting in the first half, Middle Tennessee built its lead to as much as 23 before halftime, but the Red Wolves shot 52.4 percent to rally in the final seven minutes to trim the Blue Raider advantage to 45-30 at the break.  Morrill and McDowell led ASU at halftime with nine points each.

Arkansas State continued to chip away after the break and cut the MTSU advantage to 12 at 51-39 on a three by Olvera with 15:15 to go, then made it a 10-point game when Morrill scored in the paint with 14:20 remaining.  The Blue Raiders stopped the run when Rowe scored as the shot clock expired with 11:45 to play to make it 53-41, then got two more buckets from Rowe less than a minute later to push the MTSU lead to 57-41.

Middle Tennessee then got a free throw from Rowe and a three-pointer from Shanice Cason to extend its lead back to 20 at 61-41, but the Red Wolves countered with seven straight, getting buckets from McDowell, Morrill and Hurst-McLennan to trim the Blue Raider lead back to 13 at 61-48 with 7:56 to go.

The Red Wolves got as close as nine at 64-55 on a Hurst-McLennan free throw with 4:32 remaining, then made it a seven-point game, 67-60, on a pair of free throwsfrom Olvera with 1:59 to play, but the Blue Raiders stopped the rally with a free throw from Rowe and another from junior guard Kortni Jones.  Rowe and McDowell each added a layup in the waning seconds to set the final score at 71-62.

"We were just a step slow on everything, nothing that they did was something that we had not seen," said ASU head coach Brian Boyer regarding MTSU's early advantage.  "We finally changed our mindset and in the second half, guarded them a little better and challenged them a little better.  We started getting more aggressive defensively and got some stops."

"In the first half, we had 12 turnovers, but I think only two of those were against the press," added Boyer.  "The others were decisions after the press.  We stopped turning it over and gave ourselves more chances offensively.  If we play as hard and tough as we did in the second half, we are going to win games.  It's there, it's in us, we've just got to do it."

Arkansas State turned the ball over just six times in the second half, finished the night shooting .451 (23-51) from the field and out-rebounded the Blue Raiders 32-28.  Middle Tennessee hit 28-of-53 (.528) shots from the field and 7-of-15 (.467) from the line, while the Red Wolves connected on 12-of-19 (.632) free throw attempts.  Morrill tied her career-high with four steals to lead ASU, while Hurst-McLennan and McDowell dished out four assists each.

The Red Wolves will now return to Jonesboro to host Louisiana-Lafayette Jan. 21 in a SBC-West matchup.  Tipoff is scheduled for 3:05 p.m. at the ASU Convocation Center.