On Saturday at 6 p.m. ET, the Rice Owls (18-3, 12-2 C-USA) and Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (16-7, 12-4 C-USA) will meet in the final of the Conference USA Women’s Basketball Championship in Frisco, Texas. The winners of the West Division and East Division did not face each other during the regular season, adding extra intrigue to the title game.
How did both squads get here?
Anchored by three-time C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Nancy Mulkey, Rice established itself as the conference’s best defensive team, winning the West Division with a 12-2 record. However, its spot in the tournament final was far from guaranteed. In the C-USA Championship quarterfinals, the Owls fell behind the FIU Panthers by 11 points in the first half. They used team basketball to engineer a turnaround, notching a C-USA Championship-record 26 assists to secure the 77-60 victory. In the C-USA Championship semifinals, the Owls encountered the opposite situation, having to hold off a fourth-quarter charge by the C-USA Championship’s Cinderella — the Old Dominion Monarchs (No. 6 seed in the East Division) — to escape with the two-point win, 62-60.
C-USA Player of the Year Anastasia Hayes powered Middle Tennessee to the top of the East Division with a 12-4 conference record. Although Iowa’s Caitlin Clark has passed her as the nation’s leading scorer, Hayes still has poured in the points during the Blue Raiders’ C-USA Championship run. Hayes dropped 34 points, including 20 points in the fourth quarter, to propel MTSU past the Louisiana Tech Lady Techsters, 77-71, in the C-USA Championship quarterfinals. MTSU streaked to an early lead over the UTEP Miners in the semifinals, with Hayes scoring a game-high 23 points, and the Blue Raiders cruised to a 74-58 win to advance to the program’s 24th conference tournament title game.
West Division No. 1 Rice Owls (18-3, 12-2 C-USA) vs. East Division No. 1 Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (16-7, 12-4 C-USA)
When: Saturday, March 13 at 6 p.m. ET
Where: Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, TX
How to watch/listen: CBS Sports Network/Radio: WGNS 1450 AM/100.5 FM/101.9 FM (MTSU) or MTSU’s athletics site
What to watch for: Does “defense win championships”? Or, do you just have to score more than the other team? If the Rice Owls capture the C-USA Championship crown, expect it to be because of their D. With Nancy Mulkey in the middle, the Owls allowed opponents to score only 58.3 points per game during the regular season — the best mark in C-USA. Rice also led C-USA with 4.67 blocks per game, with Mulkey averaging a conference-leading 3.2 swats. If the MTSU Blue Raiders take the C-USA Championship title, it will likely be due to their explosive offense. The Blue Raiders finished the regular season second in C-USA in scoring, averaging 74.8 points per contest. Averaging 27.1 points per game, Anastasia Hayes scored more than 30 points six times, topped by a 42-point performance. MTSU also is not afraid to use the 3-pointer to try to put more points on the board, averaging a C-USA-leading 9.1 trey attempts per game.