Rice women’s basketball lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds to Middle Tennesee in 2021 Conference USA Tournament Championship Game.
Middle Tennessee was picked to win Conference USA in the preseason polls. Rice women’s basketball were the defending champs and finished with the best record in the regular season. It was only fitting that these were the two teams pitted against each other in the conference championship game on Saturday night.
A rematch of the 2019 Championship Game between these two teams, the 2021 edition shared an eerie resemblance early on. Middle Tennessee took a modest 32-26 lead into halftime, never getting too far ahead, but doing enough to keep Rice off balance. Courtney Witson’s five three-pointers in the first half were crucial to Middle Tennessee’s early success.
Both teams went on runs in the third quarter, with Rice clawing ever so slightly closer. In the fourth quarter, Nancy Mulkey got hot. She scored the first six points in the final frame, giving Rice the lead for the first time since they led 6-5 in the first quarter.
Then came a heart-stopping finale. Middle Tennessee went on an 11-0 run to go up by 10. Rice responded with a 7-0 run to cut the deficit to three. Trailing by two, Rice had the ball with a chance to force overtime, but a pass to Mulkey in the paint was knocked away leaving Rice with little more than a full-court hail mary on the ensuing possession that fell short.
Mulkey finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. Katelyn Crosthwait and Jasmine Smith both had 13 points, with Smith tallying a double-double with 10 rebounds.
After the game, head coach Tina Langley took the blame for the heartbreaking result: “In the end, I thought I could have made some better decisions for our team,” she said. “I thought they fought their tails off. Really this is on me.”
With the win, Middle Tennesee clinches an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. Rice women’s basketball will now await their postseason fate, announced on Selection Monday. By RPI, the Owls stand a decent chance to earn an at-large berth, but the NET Rankings have them as a fringe team, at best. Given the weighting toward NET, the Owls’ season could very well be done.
No matter what happens on Monday, it was another remarkable run for this team.