The Middle Tennessee State women’s basketball team doesn’t appear to have missed a beat.
With the departure of six seniors — including two-time All-American Alysha Clark — from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, a young Blue Raiders squad had a tough act to follow.
With only two juniors and just one senior guiding a freshmen- and sophomore-laden group, it was uncertain how MTSU would fare. Despite winning last year’s Sun Belt Conference tournament, the Blue Raiders were picked to finish second in the conference’s East Division in the coaches’ preseason poll.
Halfway through this season, MTSU is on track to finish atop the league with a 7-0 Sun Belt record and a 16-4 mark overall.
“We do expect to win every time we walk out on the floor,” coach Rick Insell said. “These players I have got this year are just about all freshmen and sophomores, and I think a lot of people around the conference, and around the country, kind of looked over them. They thought they are going to need a year or two of seasoning [and] they are going to be pretty good. Well, they decided in July that they did not want to hear any more of that. We never mentioned it in the conditioning room, or the training room, or in practice. What they wanted to do was show the bunch that left — while they had all the respect in the world for them — that they had a pretty good bunch behind them last year.”
Freshman Ebony Rowe leads the way for the Blue Raiders. The 6-foot-1 forward from Lexington, Ky., has provided a spark down low, averaging a double-double with 17 points and 10.3 rebounds a game. The 6-foot-1 forward from Lexington, Ky.
On Sunday in a 71-68 win against Denver — the Blue Raiders’ seventh straight victory — Rowe scored 24 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, recording her 10th career double-double. On Jan. 5 against North Texas, she hauled down a career-high 21 rebounds — the most in Insell’s six years at the helm and the fourth most in school history.
“Ebony is just amazing. You look at her, and you wonder how does she get all of that done, but she gets on the boards,” Insell said. “You have to be born with that. You do not coach that. She is a competitor, she gets great positioning, and she has got great leap. She is a winner.”
While Rowe has put together a great opening act in what could be a record-setting career, Anne Marie Lanning is writing a nice ending to her four years at MTSU.
The lone senior is averaging 12.2 points a game and has 88 assists, second on the team to Kortni Jones (98). Lanning, a 5-11 guard from Murfreesboro, scored 18 points against Denver, eclipsing the 1,000-point mark in the process. She is just the 25th player in school history to reach that mark.
“Anne Marie is our MVP,” Insell said. “She does everything for us. She initiates our offense for us; we trust her with the basketball. If you watch, every possession goes through Anne Marie Lanning. She dictates basically what we want. She may not be the best player on our team, but in her teammates’ eyes, and in the eyes of the coaches, she is our MVP. And she might end up being the MVP of this conference before it is all said and done.”
• Football promotions: MTSU football coach Rick Stockstill moved assistant coaches Steve Ellis and Willie Simmons to coordinator roles.
Ellis, who spent the last two seasons as MTSU’s special teams and cornerbacks coach, will be the defensive coordinator. The 30-year-old served as defensive coordinator at Nicholls State during the 2006-08 seasons. Simmons, also 30, was the Blue Raiders running backs coach for the past four years and will handle the offensive coordinator duties. This is Simmons’ first time being a coordinator and he will continue to coach the running backs.
“Both Steve and Willie have everything I am looking for in the coordinator positions,” Stockstill said. "They possess great knowledge of what we want to run at Middle Tennessee, are highly organized and coach with unmatched passion and enthusiasm. Our players will feed off their energy level. I am totally confident in both Steve and Willie and know they will do an outstanding job in preparing our players both offensively and defensively.”
The vacancies came about shortly after MTSU’s loss to Miami University (Ohio) in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Offensive coordinator Mike Schultz left after one season with the Blue Raiders to take the same job at Texas State. Defensive coordinator Randall McCray was fired after just one season.
• TSU’s top freshman: Tennessee State guard Patrick Miller was named the Ohio Valley Conference’s freshman of the week, the league announced Monday. It was the third time this season he has collected the honor.
Miller, a 6-foot, 185-pound native of Chicago, averaged 15.5 points, three rebounds and one assist in conference victories over Tennessee Tech and Jacksonville State last week.
Miller recorded 22 points and six rebounds — both career-highs — and was 12-of-19 from the free-throw line in the Tigers' come-from-behind win against Tennessee Tech on Saturday. Earlier in the week, he scored nine points against Jacksonville State.
He is averaging 11.8 points and 34.5 minutes, which is a team-high and the third most in the OVC.
“We were really excited when we got him,” Tennessee State coach John Cooper said. “We thought he had a chance to be a big-time player for us. He is a good player. He was body ready, strong and ready to play from day one.”
Tennessee State is 10-9 but 7-2 in the conference, which is tied with Austin Peay for the best league mark. The Tigers, winners of four straight, play at Morehead State on Thursday.
“I’m excited for our guys. We have found ways to win games,” Cooper said. “I don’t know what it means midway through the conference season. We still have a long ways to go.”
• Cumberland’s Rogers pulls upset: Cumberland University sophomore wrestler Bradley Rogers pulled a big upset last Thursday when he knocked off the eighth-ranked heavyweight wrestler in a match with Central Baptist College. Rogers defeated John Lopez 6-3 in the final match of a 57-0 rout by Cumberland. Rogers, a Collierville native who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 197 pounds, recorded a reversal with 15 seconds to grab the lead for the first time in the match, securing the win.
Rogers had been named the Mid-South Conference wrestler of the week earlier in the week. He finished last week with another win on Saturday as the Bulldogs defeated the University of the Cumberlands 39-6. They don’t compete again until the Mid-South Conference tournament, which will be held on Feb. 12.
• Vanderbilt’s 2011 men’s tennis class ranked No. 1: Tennisrecruiting.net has ranked Vanderbilt’s six-man 2011 signing class the best in the country, the website announced Monday.
The Commodores received 388 points (out of 400 possible) and nine first-place votes. Fellow Southeastern Conference members South Carolina and Tennessee ranked third and fifth, respectively.
It is the third straight year that Vanderbilt has been ranked in the top 10. Last year’s class was ranked 10th and the 2009 class was seventh.
Gonzales Austin, ranked No. 2 overall, leads the class. He will be joined by Jeffery Offerdahl, Joe Dorn, Anton Kovrigin, Suresh Eswaran and Michael Retta.
“We are very excited about this talented group of players,” coach Ivan Duvenhage said. “We can’t wait for them to be part of our program in the fall.”
The Commodores began the indoor season on Saturday with two 7-0 victories against Tennessee Tech and Lipscomb. They will compete in the National Indoor Kick-Off in Palo Alto, Calif., on Friday.