March Madness bound: MTSU women's basketball beats Western Kentucky for C-USA Championship

Middle Tennessee State women's basketball left nothing to chance with the NCAA Tournament committee.

The 25th-ranked Lady Raiders (28-4) earned an automatic qualifier berth into the NCAA Tournament with an 82-70 win over rival Western Kentucky on Saturday in the Conference USA Tournament championship game in Frisco, Texas.

ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme believed reaching the championship game was enough to get into the tournament and MTSU coach Rick Insell felt like the Blue Raiders had done enough following Friday's semifinal win over UTEP. Now all the Lady Raiders have to do is await their seeding on Sunday night.

Going into Saturday's games, Creme had MTSU projected as a No. 10 seed, playing in the Seattle bracket and opening in College Park, Maryland, against No. 7 North Carolina State.

MTSU MEN:MTSU men's basketball eliminated by FAU 68-65 in C-USA semifinals

Mar 11, 2023; Frisco, TX, USA; The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders celebrate punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament after defeating the Western Kentucky Lady Toppers in the Conference USA Tournament Championship at Ford Center at The Star. Mandatory Credit: Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 11, 2023; Frisco, TX, USA; The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders celebrate punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament after defeating the Western Kentucky Lady Toppers in the Conference USA Tournament Championship at Ford Center at The Star. Mandatory Credit: Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

"Now we don't get to prove we had an at-large bid," said a laughing Insell, following the game. "I'm real proud of these young ladies. They've been under the gun all year long. I'm proud of them and I'm real proud to represent Middle Tennessee State University."

Top-seeded MTSU locked it up by winning its 10th consecutive game (after a 16-game win streak earlier in the season).

The Lady Raiders were 11-of-27 from 3-point range and 21-of-24 from the free-throw line, led by sophomore guard Jalynn Gregory, the tournament MVP, who scored a game-high 24 points on 5-of-5 shooting from 3-point range.

"I was more worried about winning the championship than anything else," said Gregory, referring to her surprise in being named MVP. "(Going to the NCAA Tournament) was my plan when I came here. It's one of the reasons I chose to come here. I didn't want to settle for just making it to a conference tournament. I wanted to make it to the NCAA and win games there."

Mar 11, 2023; Frisco, TX, USA;  Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders guard Jalynn Gregory (10) scores a basket against Western Kentucky Lady Toppers guard Mya Meredith (5) during the first half at Ford Center at The Star. Mandatory Credit: Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 11, 2023; Frisco, TX, USA; Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders guard Jalynn Gregory (10) scores a basket against Western Kentucky Lady Toppers guard Mya Meredith (5) during the first half at Ford Center at The Star. Mandatory Credit: Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

After ending the first quarter tied at 15, MTSU picked things up in the second period, outscoring WKU 32-16 to take a 47-31 halftime lead.

Kseniya Malashka, who was quiet early, scored all 10 of her first-half points in the final three minutes of the second after outside shooting opened up the lane for the Lady Raiders.

Senior Alexis Whittington, a former Riverdale standout, made three of the Lady Raiders' seven 3-pointers in the half and had 11 at halftime while Gregory (two 3-pointers) added 10.

"One of my closest friends, (former MTSU men's coach) Jimmy Earle, (said) you've got to enter the ball to the post in order for the outside game to come to where it needs to be," Insell said. "That's what we were trying to do with (Anastasiia Boldyreva) and (Malashka).

Mar 11, 2023; Frisco, TX, USA; The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders celebrate punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament after defeating the Western Kentucky Lady Toppers in the Conference USA Tournament Championship at Ford Center at The Star. Mandatory Credit: Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 11, 2023; Frisco, TX, USA; The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders celebrate punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament after defeating the Western Kentucky Lady Toppers in the Conference USA Tournament Championship at Ford Center at The Star. Mandatory Credit: Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

"When Ksenia went back in, after I had talked to her, she hit Jalynn, who buried a 3, then hit someone else, who buried a 3. After they had to cover down on those ladies, she was matched up one-on-one, and she can beat anyone in America one-on-one."

MTSU closed out the first half on a 30-11 run.

No. 2 seed Western Kentucky (19-13) was hot from 3-point range early, building an 11-7 lead. Former Riverdale standout Acacia Hayes had eight points (two 3-pointers) in the quarter and finished the first half with 11.

MTSU built the lead to as much as 22 at 61-39 in the third quarter.

Whittington finished with 16 as five Lady Raiders scored in double figures. Hayes finished with 15 for Western Kentucky.

MTSU's Jalynn Gregory (right) hugs teammate Alexis Whittington (23) following winning the Conference USA tournament championship Saturday, 82-70 over Western Kentucky at Ford Center at the Star in Frisco, Texas.
MTSU's Jalynn Gregory (right) hugs teammate Alexis Whittington (23) following winning the Conference USA tournament championship Saturday, 82-70 over Western Kentucky at Ford Center at the Star in Frisco, Texas.

This article originally appeared on Murfreesboro Daily News Journal: March Madness: MTSU women's basketball win Conference USA title