NASHVILLE – Every win is sweet for Middle Tennessee Head Coach Rick Insell. Friday’s against Vanderbilt was maybe a little sweeter than usual, though.
The Lady Raiders (1-0) went up the road to Nashville to visit the Commodores (0-1) and came home with a 65-54 season-opening win, making Insell the first coach in program history to reach the 300-win mark (300-97 overall in 12-plus seasons).
It was the 11th win for MT in 19 tries against Vandy and the first since 1988.
“More than anything, in these 300 wins I’ve had some really good players and some good young ladies,” Insell said. “I thought before the game how blessed I am to be able to coach at Middle Tennessee, and I knew our ladies were going to come out and play hard.
“We appreciate Vanderbilt and [VU head coach] Stephanie White scheduling us. It was a win-win for both programs, and I’m very thankful and very appreciative that Vanderbilt and Stephanie agreed to play us.”
Middle Tennessee got off to a fast start, going up 11-4 with 6:49 left in the first quarter as Conference USA Preseason Player of the Year Alex Johnsonsunk a layup, her fourth point.
That’s when things took a turn for the Lady Raiders and Johnson.
A minute after her layup, Johnson was fighting down low on the defensive side. When she went up for a rebound, she came down awkwardly on her left ankle and was in immediate pain.
She was forced out of the game and wouldn’t return.
“I think it’s just an ankle sprain, but we’ll get an X-ray probably tonight … and may have her back Tuesday night,” Insell said. “We just didn’t want to chance it and play her again tonight, then all of a sudden you find out there’s a break or a crack.”
The Lady Raiders weathered the storm without Johnson early on, maintaining a 22-14 lead at the close of the first quarter after senior Rebecca Reuter knocked home a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
In the second quarter, though, Vanderbilt made a run.
The Commodores came out on a 9-0 run and took a 23-22 lead with 6:34 left in the half, seemingly snatching all of the momentum from Middle Tennessee.
The Lady Raiders stopped the bleeding thanks to their stingy defense that limited Vandy to just 39 percent shooting in the first half, and took a 30-26 advantage into halftime.
“Coach has been on us really hard, especially our guards, about defense,” senior Gabby Lyon said. “I think everyone played a great game defensively tonight. Even Anna [Jones], a freshman, came in and got some deflections. I thought that was great, and what we really need.”
Coming out of the halftime break, Middle Tennessee’s defense didn’t falter, holding Vanderbilt to 33 percent shooting in the last two quarters and 36 percent for the game (18-for-50).
Three shots from 3-point range gave the Lady Raiders as much as a 14-point third quarter lead, and going into the final 10 minutes they still held a double-digit advantage, 49-39.
The double-digit lead wouldn’t last long in the fourth quarter, as Vandy cut the lead down to as little as five with 5:34 remaining. But, again, the Lady Raiders’ defense bailed them out, and a senior leader showed toughness on the block.
Without Johnson, her starting mate down low, Lyon flexed her muscle when her team needed it. She made a pair of layups and a free throw and grabbed a few key rebounds, one offensively, in the last three minutes to help secure the win.
She finished with a double-double, scoring 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting and notching 10 rebounds (two offensive).
“As everyone knows, Alex is our horse and our primary post player,” Lyon said. “We just wanted to play hard for her, and even though we didn’t have her post presence, we have a lot of other good girls we can go to in the post.”
Junior Jess Louro led the way in the scoring column with 16 (four 3-pointers). She also had six rebounds and two steals.
The Lady Raiders will be in action next on Tuesday, Nov. 14. Tennessee Tech will make the short drive from Cookeville to Murfreesboro for MT’s home opener at the Murphy Center. It’s scheduled for a 6:30 p.m. tipoff.