MTSU coach Rick Insell on his team's 62-57 win over Kentucky, MTSU's final game of its nonconference schedule. Erik Bacharach/DNJ
MTSU guard Abbey Sissom drives against Kentucky‘s Maci Morris in their game at Murphy Center on Dec. 28, 2017.(Photo: Brent Beerends/MTSU Athletics)
MURFREESBORO — Rick Insell spent almost the entirety of the first half of Thursday night‘s game with his hands on his hips, pacing and yelling more than anyone should have to during the placid week between Christmas and New Year‘s Day.
But by the end of the third quarter, the MTSU coach was applauding his Lady Raiders. By the end of the fourth, he could finally breathe: Somehow, MTSU pulled off a 62-57 comeback win against Kentucky at Murphy Center.
It was MTSU‘s first win over Kentucky since 2011.
The Lady Raiders trailed, 32-20, at halftime before outscoring Kentucky by 10 points in the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Abbey Sissom‘s 3-pointer with 9:30 remaining gave MTSU (8-5) a 45-44 lead, its first since the game‘s opening minutes. Jess Louro then drained a 3 to extend MTSU‘s lead to four points, but Kentucky (8-6) fought back to even the score.
With the scored tied at 54 and 50 seconds remaining, Sissom dished inside to Charity Savage for a layup. Jess Louro intercepted a pass on Kentucky‘s ensuing possession before Katie Collier was fouled and knocked down two free throws.
Kentucky‘s Keke McKinney then knocked down a 3-pointer to bring the Wildcats to within 58-57. But Savage converted two free throws on the other end, and McKinney‘s 3-point attempt with five seconds left fell short. Savage then hit two free throws to seal it.
“We just kind of rallied at the half together,” Sissom said, “and said, ‘Look, if we cut down on these turnovers and take care of the ball and play for each other and work together, we can win this thing.
Sissom keeps MTSU in it
While the rest of MTSU struggled, Abbey Sissom did everything she could to keep her team alive.
The senior guard had 14 points in the first half — no other Lady Raider had more than three points in the first 20 minutes — before finishing with 22 points on 6-of-11 shooting from the field and 5-of-7 shooting.
“She‘s been our rock,” Insell said. “Best she‘s played in her whole life. I‘m proud to coach her.”
It was her third consecutive game of scoring 20 points or more, the first time in her career she‘s had such a stretch.
“She‘s having to do it on the offensive end,” Insell said, “and then on the defensive end, we‘re putting the pressure on her to guard their best player. That‘s tough.”
For the third straight game, Sissom played 40 minutes.
Savage provides the spark
At halftime, Insell pulled up a chair right in front of Savage on the MTSU bench before the two got to talking about how the 6-foot freshman could make a difference down low.
“(Insell) wasn‘t happy with the way the post players were producing,” the freshman guard said, “so he pulled me aside and asked me if I still remembered the post offenses because I played post my freshman year (of high school).”
Apparently she did.
After not playing at all in the first half, Savage logged five crucial minutes in the second half at the post. She scored six of MTSU‘s final eight points, including the go-ahead layup with 50 seconds left.
MTSU‘s offense laboring without Johnson
Perhaps the best measure of Alex Johnson‘s importance to MTSU‘s lineup is what it looks like in her absence.
MTSU committed seven turnovers in the first seven minutes and went 0-for-7 shooting from the field over that span. The Lady Raiders finished the half shooting just 28.6 percent from the field.
Johnson, the C-USA Preseason Player of the Year and the cog at the center of everything MTSU does offensively, missed her seventh game with an injury to her left ankle. MTSU was also without starting guard Kyla Allison, who missed her seventh straight game with a right foot injury.
After totaling just three points on 1-of-5 shooting in the first half, senior forward Rebecca Reuter, whose important role is amplified even further in Johnson‘s absence, finished with 16 points.
“It‘s been a lot for me and (Gabby Lyon). We‘ve really been trying to pick the slack up,” Reuter said. “When we don‘t our job, it affects the whole team. We always try to play inside-out first and when we aren‘t scoring, it‘s hard for the guards to get shots up.
“Thank goodness Abbey was playing so great in the first half because she carried us in those first two quarters. And I knew that personally, I had to step up for this team to win.”
MTSU will begin C-USA play at Western Kentucky on Jan. 4.