Women’s basketball struggles offensively in semifinal loss

Marshall University’s women’s basketball team couldn’t keep its upset bid alive in the Conference USA Tournament semifinals Friday as it was flummoxed by Middle Tennessee State University’s defense falling 69-41.

Throughout the contest, the Herd offense struggled to create quality looks offensively, as its guards seemed to be coated in adhesive with Middle Tennessee State’s defense sticking to their hip on every ill-fated drive attempt.

“It was our job as perimeters to keep them outside,” Middle Tennessee State guard Brea Johnson said. “Our post (defenders) did a great job hedging and showing, giving us enough time to recover and also so they could get back to their man. It was just good team defense.”

Forward Leah Scott was the only member of the Herd who consistently manufactured separation against the Blue Raiders’ defense as she drew a host of fouls in the early stages of the contest. However, Scott’s individual numbers were neutralized amid the bodies and swiping hands of help defenders as she finished the game with just seven points on 3-7 shooting to go with four rebounds and four assists before fouling out with 6:38 remaining.

Defensively, the Herd had no answer for Middle Tennessee State forward Alex Johnson, who finished the game with 22 points on 7-15 shooting while collecting five rebounds and three assists.

“Coming into this game (Middle Tennessee State point guard Ty Petty) told me ‘we’re coming to you, we’re coming to you,” Johnson said. “So I knew that when I got the ball, I had to just sit low and put it against the glass.”

Marshall head coach Matt Daniel and his staff made several strategic changes in the way it defended Johnson, throwing myriad defenders at her in individual matchups, having guards dig down to double her and switching to a 2-3 zone, but none of them mitigated Johnson’s success in the post.

“We threw a lot of things at her,” Daniel said. “We fronted her (in the post) in the past and it hasn’t helped us either. They are just really good in the post. I considered putting six out there too, but they just wouldn’t let me.”

When it wasn’t Johnson bullying her way to low post buckets and flicking up baby hooks, it was a stifling defense that created turnovers and put the Herd in compromising positions defensively. The Blue Raiders scored 23 points off 22 Marshall turnovers.

Middle Tennessee State head coach Rick Insell said he emphasized playing at a faster pace, knowing the Herd was playing its third game in as many days.

“We knew coming in that it was going to be tough,” Insell said. “It was their third game in a row; we felt like if we could just keep pushing the ball, even if we didn’t get anything out of it, we were making them have to guard us and have to run.”

Insell’s philosophy proved true on the court, and Daniel said his team displayed all the symptoms of one dealing with considerable fatigue.

“We didn’t have it,” Daniel said. “We just didn’t have the magic. You could tell in the free shooting; it was just tough. You got to go to work on the bad days too.”

The Herd, hung tough in the short term as it trailed 20-15 after the opening quarter, but the effectiveness of Middle Tennessee State’s defense and the Herd’s overall tiredness began to neuter its offensive performance thereafter. Marshall scored just 26 points combined in the remaining three quarters of action.

The Herd did battle to within 12 midway through the third quarter, but Middle Tennessee State proceeded to go on a 13-4 to close out the quarter and essentially end the game as it entered the fourth quarter with a 55-34 lead.

Despite the loss, Daniel said he doesn’t expect it to be the season finale for the Herd as he envisions a postseason berth considering the team’s strong finish to the season.

“The ride that we’ve been on so far; hitting blackjack is all I could call it, winning 21 games for the first time in 30 years,” Daniel said. “I think we are going to have a shot to go win number 22. I think that our body of work speaks for itself when you talk about postseason play.”

Bradley Heltzel can be contacted at [email protected]