MTSU women eye Top 25 ranking now, deep NCAA tournament run later

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 at 10:43pm

MURFREESBORO — Kortni Jones wants to go where no Middle Tennessee State team has gone before — a Sweet 16.

Bold talk considering there is still a month left in the regular season but maybe not too far-fetched as the Blue Raiders already appear to be in mid-March form.

Jones helped MTSU pick up its 11th straight victory, slicing the Troy defense for a program-record 16 assists to go along with a game-high 24 points in an 82-52 rout on Wednesday night in front of 2,922 at the Murphy Center.

Under seventh-year head coach Rick Insell, MTSU is now 58-1 in Sun Belt Conference home games.

More importantly, the Blue Raiders (17-5) sit atop the league standings with a perfect 9-0 mark, already eying their fourth straight league championship. They’re also on track for their eighth consecutive 20-win season along with their fourth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament and eighth in nine years.

“We’re really trying to force ourselves to become a great team,” Jones said. “Right now, we’re just good. We’re not getting too high or too low, and we’re OK with just being good. But I think once we continue to progress that eventually we’ll reach that great role and hopefully we’ll get a few games into the NCAA Tournament.”

Although they’re young with just one senior and seven freshmen and sophomores, the roster drips with talent.

Three players average double figures in scoring, led by Sun Belt co-preseason player of the year Ebony Rowe (17.1 ppg). The 6-foot-1 sophomore has 26 double-doubles in her short career, including 10 this season. Last week she set a school record and tied the league mark with a perfect 13-of-13 shooting night for a career-high 29 points against Arkansas State last week.

Against Troy, though, she had a relatively quiet night by her standards, scoring 12 points and grabbing nine rebounds.

Meanwhile, junior Icelyn Elie (24 points, 10 rebounds) and Jones stole the show. Jones, a junior from Oak Ridge, connected with teammates through precision passing to set the record for the most assists in a Sun Belt game.

“Between me, [Ebony] and Icelyn, we feel like if someone has a breakout night it is going to be a good game,” said Jones, who averages 16.1 points. “If two people have a breakout night, then it takes the pressure off Ebony because I feel like she has a lot of pressure on her back. ... Everybody looks to her to average a double-figure night every single game. So I think it is good that me and Icelyn can pick up the slack when she is not on her best game.”

While the Blue Raiders lead the league in scoring offense, scoring margin and assists, they also play stifling defense thanks to a bothersome full-court press. They allow an average of just 57 points and force a Sun Belt-best 22.2 turnovers a game. Troy committed 26 turnovers — still seven shy of the most MTSU has forced this season.

However, before the Blue Raiders’ recent tear, they took their lumps. Faced with a  grueling non-conference schedule, they began the season 4-5. They dropped games to ranked opponents Penn State and Tennessee, along with setbacks to James Madison, Georgia Tech and Arkansas.

But they picked up some steam just three games into their current streak with a monumental upset , knocking off then-No. 6 Kentucky 70-58 at home on Dec. 28. It was just their fourth win against a ranked opponent (out of 45 tries).

“I think the biggest thing about the Kentucky win was that we didn’t eke it out,” Insell said. “I thought we might be 18-4 [at this point], something like that, if the schedule didn’t kill us. I think beating Florida International before Christmas, coming back and getting Kentucky here and then South Alabama, those three wins gave us a boost in confidence. It has carried us over into January.”

That confidence has MTSU playing like a Top 25 team. But the Blue Raiders haven’t received such a ranking yet.

In this week’s USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll, they received 17 points, tied with Vanderbilt and four spots out of the top 25. They are not receiving votes in the Associated Press poll.

MTSU was last ranked in either poll at the end of the 2009-10 season but Insell believes his team, which holds an RPI of 47, once again deserves that honor.

“I think they should be in the Top 25,” Insell said. “It’s probably because that some people look at us and they still see a mid-major, which I despise that term and that word. The last time I checked we were Division I and there is 346 Division I teams and we are one of them.”

And come March, the Blue Raiders hope to be one of just 16 teams left standing.

“We’re kind of tired going and only winning one game,” Jones said. “It’s like, OK, we can do better than that ... and do something no one has done.”