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Middle Tennessee noted for its defensive pressure, shooting


Adam Minichino



Rick Insell isn''t coy. 


He knows his team''s strengths and that his team will try to press opponents on one end and light them up with a 3-point barrage on the other. 


Oh, senior forward Alysha Clark, the nation''s leading scorer, probably will score a few points, too. 


Now that everyone knows his team''s strategy for its game at 1:30 p.m. Sunday against seventh-seeded Mississippi State (19-12) in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Middle Tennessee State coach won''t change a thing. 


"If you know anything about Middle Tennessee those are two things you know about us," Insell said of his team''s use of pressure defense and its 3-point shooting ability. "If you try to keep Alysha Clark from getting 40, we don''t mind. We''re going to warm it up and shoot the three. If a player passes up a shot, they will get taken out of the game." 


Tenth-seeded MTSU (25-5), which defeated the University of Arkansas at Little Rock 70-68 in overtime to win the Sun Belt Conference''s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, comes into its matchup against MSU on a 16-game winning streak. The Blue Raiders have four senior starters, four players who have more than 1,000 career points, and are ranked No. 24 in this week''s USA Today/ESPN Top 25 poll. They are No. 27 in the Associated Press poll. 


Clark leads the nation in scoring at 28.7 points per game. She also is fourth in the country in rebounding and sixth in the nation in field goal percentage (62.2 percent). 


Brandi Brown, a 6-foot-3 forward, Chelsia Lymon, a 5-5 senior guard, and Jackie Pickel, a 5-10 senior guard, eclipsed 1,000 career points this season, making MTSU just the sixth program in NCAA history to accomplish that feat. Junior Anne Marie Lanning (8.3 ppg.) is closing in that milestone as well. 


Of those five players, Clark has the fewest 3-pointers (17). Pickel (80), Brown (71), Lanning (61), and Lymon (60) are the 3-point leaders on a team that is second in the country with 10 treys per game. That long-range marksmanship translates to a team that is third in the country in scoring (81.4 ppg.), eighth in scoring margin (17.3 ppg), eighth in field goal percentage (46.3 percent), and eighth in assists per game (17.8). 


"Are we great athletes? No," Insell said. "Do we have great lateral quickness? No. Are we able to go up and dominate the boards? No. What we do we do well. We have had success doing that and we pass ball well, we share the ball, and we run the floor and knock down threes and Alysha Clark finishes inside." 


Insell said his players typically have the green light to shoot 3-pointers, and there really isn''t a time when his players aren''t allowed to shoot it. 


"You have to guard the three ball," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "They can light it up. You have to close out short and you have to close out long, and you have to have high hands and you really have to try to get into their space. I know when we played them it took a while for us to do what we needed to do and defend them the way we needed to defend. If people haven''t played them beforehand they are a team that can really be very, very successful." 


MTSU last lost on Jan. 9 (63-43 at UALR). It has played a tough non-conference schedule that includes several common opponents with MSU, including losses to LSU (61-40 on Nov. 18), Tennessee (69-52 on Nov. 25), and Xavier (80-63 on Dec. 3). The Blue Raiders defeated Kentucky, a team that beat MSU twice, 57-51 on Dec. 28. 


Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell, whose team beat MSU in the SEC Tournament semifinals before losing to Tennessee, feels MSU matches up well with MTSU. 


"State is so athletic and they are able to bring some size to Alysha Clark with (senior center Chanel) Mokango," Mitchell said. "She makes it difficult to score over her, and just the athleticism of their guards is so impressive. I think with senior forward) Tysheka (Grimes) back and playing Mississippi State is an extremely dangerous team in this tournament." 


Insell said his team needs to do a better job on defense. He said his team''s efficiency on offense often causes it not to play the same way on defense, but he has tried in the last week to change that. Playing MSU in the first round has served as excellent motivation. 


"I think Mississippi State has the second best talent in the (Southeastern) conference," Insell said. "I have been in the business more than 30 years and I have seen several films on them. Their point guard (senior Armelie Lumanu) is long and rangy and pushes the ball and shoots the ball well enough. (Senior guard Alexis) Rack is a great shooter who pushes ball. No. 33 (junior guard Mary Kathryn Govero) is just a great shooter. 


"What they have got is a lot of slashers. I think one of their best players is (senior forward Tysheka) Grimes. She is rugged and big and goes to the boards well. They have a big kid inside in (senior center Chanel) Mokango, and she is a shot blocker who has lateral quickness and goes to the board well. They have good ingredients." 


MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis was equally expansive in her praise of the Blue Raiders. 


"They are one of the top teams in terms of scoring and 3-pointers and they have kids who play exceptionally hard and with a tremendous amount of experience," Fanning-Otis said. "With that in mind we have to play our best ball. They beat Kentucky. They are a very, very, very good basketball team. I hope our team is ready to play for 40 minutes. That is what we have been focusing on." 


Insell said the Blue Raiders will try to push the tempo and he imagines MSU will try to do the same. He knows from watching tape of MSU''s victory against Georgia in the SEC Tournament that the Lady Bulldogs can get hot quickly and change the momentum of a game, so he said his players will have to be focused to 40 minutes. 



Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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