Lady Raiders can’t overcome Seton Hall in a heartbreaking thriller
By: Chris Sakacsi
MTN Sports Reporter
Murfreesboro, Tennessee- It was a near storybook setting in the packed Murphy Center as the Lady Raiders (27-8) took on Seton Hall (24-12) in a WNIT semifinal matchup Thursday night. Unfortunately for the home squad, not all stories end on a satisfying note. Throughout the postseason, MT has conquered foul trouble, double-digit deficits at halftime, and hostile crowds. Nothing could prepare them for the offensive barrage that was the Seton Hall offense.
The contest opened with a scorching pace as both teams combined for a total of 35 field goals attempted in the first ten minutes alone. Trailing by two points (14-16) heading into the second period, some critical defensive lapses against a Seton Hall standout would prove the ultimate demise for MT.
Sidney Cooks made her impact known with her scoring, rebounding, and shot-blocking capabilities for the Pirates. The Seton Hall starting center tore up the Lady Raiders defense in the second period after scoring five points in the first. She went perfect from the field with 13 points, hitting shots the average fan doesn’t see from a college big.
“I’ve never seen Cooks play like that,” head coach Rick Insell said. “She played well, hit big shots, and she’s got great touch. We did a poor job on her early.”
Cooks has a certain finesse to her game that was rare to see in Murphy Center. She’s an unconventional big that doesn’t look for contact, more so turnarounds and step back jumpers. She helped propel the Pirates to a 22-2 scoring run with MT finding themselves down big.
“We were playing too much to the crowd and weren’t executing our offense, when we did, we got back into the ballgame,” Insell said. “We missed a lot of early shots.”
If there’s anything to say about the Lady Raiders, they don’t give in easily. Thanks to a concerted effort in transition, the home team was able to scrounge up a 10-0 scoring run to end the first half which cut it to a 12-point deficit (38-26).
Coming out the gates swinging in the third was none other than Anastasiia Boldyreva. The freshman center scored seven straight points, showing flashes of her game back in Toledo where she went for 28. The output from Boldyreva proved vital for the Lady Raiders comeback as she helped trim Seton Hall’s lead to ten points.
The teams went blow-for-blow afterwards, matching 3-pointers and trips to the foul line. Near the end of the third, MT had a “flash in the pan” moment which was familiar to everyone but the visitors. Within one-minute, the Lady Raiders went on another scoring run with seven straight, placing them in striking distance with one final quarter to go (50-57).
“We’re a team of great shooters,” Dor Saar said. “I’m proud of the players even if they didn’t get it going in the first half, they kept shooting.”
As Seton Hall began to unravel with a technical foul from one of its coaches, MT took full advantage and tied the game at 57. Pirate guard Lauren Park-Lane, who is third nationally when it comes to racking up assists, stopped the bleeding with a triple to go along with her ball distribution. Seton Hall’s lead was back to seven with just under four minutes remaining in regulation.
Kseniya Malashka, who had a team-high 25 points, fueled an 11-0 scoring run with her production in the paint as well as consistency at the charity stripe. These points earned the Lady Raiders their only lead of the night (71-67). Up four points with under a minute left, the Glass House was on fire. The cheers sadly came to a quick halt after some critical turnovers and fouls committed by MT, giving Seton Hall a chance to retake the lead with 17 seconds left. The Pirates missed a jumper for the win, but then Cooks grabbed the offensive board for a put back lay in (73-74).
Down a single point with just under three seconds remaining, the Lady Raiders still had hope to close the game out. A play that was originally drawn up for Courtney Whitson ended up in the hands of Malashka. The C-USA Sixth Player of the Year drove hard to the basket with a questionable amount of contact from the Pirate defender. The ball stubbornly hit the side of the rim as Malashka fell to the ground, no call. The buzzer sounded as Seton Hall won a hard-fought game advancing the WNIT final.
“I was looking for what was open and when I found the contact I was trying to get into the person and draw the foul,” Malashka said. “They didn’t call it.”
Despite coming back from a 22-point deficit in the second quarter, even taking the lead late in the game, the Lady Raiders lost in bittersweet fashion.
“We’ve got to get over it, take a couple weeks off, get stronger, and work on some skill sets,” Insell said. “I feel good about our players, good about our team, and we’ve got a good group coming in.”
The season finale came with it several accolades that will stay in the program’s history books. The 35 games played by the Lady Raiders this year are the most in the program’s history for a single season. The Lady Raiders 27 wins are the fourth most in program history. This is the first Lady Raider team to reach a national semifinal postseason tournament. Finally, their four postseason wins are the most in program history.
The winning streak at the Glass House may have been broken at 16, but it will never be forgotten. This has been an absolute thrill ride of a year, and with a mostly returning cast along with new talent coming in, the Lady Raiders future has never been brighter.
*all stats courtesy of statbroadcast.com