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MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders had fourth-ranked Tennessee right where they wanted them at halftime for a second straight season.
This time, they went cold in the second half and let the Lady Vols slip away with a victory again.
Ebony Rowe scored 21 points and grabbed 16 rebounds as Middle Tennessee blew a 12-point halftime lead Friday night in losing the season opener to Tennessee 67-57. The Blue Raiders led for more than 35 minutes in Knoxville last season only to lose in overtime.
"I'm sad that we lost the ballgame, but on the other hand I feel like we have some young players that saw what we've got to do to become a better basketball team," coach Rick Insell said of his Blue Raiders. "We needed a game like this."
Olivia Jones had 10, and Shanice Cason added 10 points and 10 rebounds for Middle Tennessee. But the Blue Raiders struggled at the free throw line for the game (17 of 31) and hit only 6 of 29 from the floor in the second half (20.7 percent).
"Against a Tennessee team with as much quickness as they've got and experience as they've got, they did what they had to do, got up in us, got us a little bit rattled, got us out of our offense," Insell said.
Middle Tennessee was up 34-22 at halftime before Tennessee scored the first 14 of the second half. Isabelle Harrison scored 13 points, and Mercedes Russell, the Gatorade national girls player of the year from Springfield, Ore., scored nine of her 11 in the second half for Tennessee. The Lady Vols also turned the ball over only four times after doing so 10 times in the first half.
Ariel Massengale had 12 points for the Lady Vols, and Andraya Carter had 10.
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick was happy to escape with the victory with the Lady Vols visiting No. 12 North Carolina on Monday night. The coach wasn't happy with her Lady Vols being called for 33 fouls. Middle Tennessee had 25 for a combined 68 in the game. Warlick didn't point the finger at the officials.
"That's how it is so we've got to adjust and we've got to do a better job as coaches to get our kids to where we need to be defensively," Warlick said. "I don't know what else to say. I mean ... we just got to do a better job as coaches if it's going to continue to be the way that it's called and it's up to us to change it."
After Middle Tennessee lost 88-81 in overtime to the Lady Vols in Knoxville last year, the Blue Raiders drew 11,227 — the second-largest crowd in the program's history only to 11,802 who came to watch Tennessee on Nov. 25, 2009.
"One of the things that the WBCA chartered all of our programs to do across the country was to grow the game," Insell said. "Well, you looked at two programs out there tonight that's concerned about growing the game."
The Lady Vols went 27-8 last season and lost to eventual champ Louisville in a regional final, while Middle Tennessee is the preseason favorite to win its new league in Conference USA after five straight NCAA tournament berths of its own.
Tennessee has enough experience returning that Warlick brought Russell off the bench.
Insell has some talented freshmen too. Jones helped local Riverdale High finish first nationally last season in several polls, and the forward had all her points by halftime.