|Charlotte pushes league leader to wire Saturday|
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Charlotte went toe-to-toe with preseason Conference USA favorite and current league leader Middle Tennessee but was unable to sustain it down the stretch, dropping a 48-46 decision Saturday. The 49ers made their push late the first half to overtake the Blue Raiders before the home squad bounced back with key plays in the waning minutes.
A low-scoring game throughout resulted in a balanced offensive attack for Charlotte (12-13, 6-6 C-USA), who had only senior Ny Hammonds in double-figure points. She finished with 12 to go along with six rebounds, four assists, three steals while playing the full 40 minutes.
Redshirt junior Gabby Tyler and junior Hillary Sigmon each chipped in eight points, while sophomores Kira Gordon and Alexis Alexander topped the Niners with seven rebounds apiece. Charlotte won the rebounding battle, 41-to-37.
Leading the way for the Blue Raiders was All-American candidate Ebony Rowe, who tallied a double-double of 12 points and 15 rebounds, including 10 on the defensive boards. The 49ers’ defense held her without a point until the 14:56 mark of the second period as she missed her first eight attempts from the floor.
Shanice Cason and KeKe Stewart also contributed double-figure point totals with 11 and 10, respectively. As a team, the 48 points by Middle Tennessee (23-4, 12-1 C-USA) was its lowest this season and fewest since posting 43 in a loss at UALR Feb. 16, 2013.
Charlotte owned as much as a 10-point lead during the second half before the Blue Raiders started to mount their comeback. The Niners were still in front until a free throw by Cason pulled MT ahead, 42-41, with exactly 5:00 left. The Blue Raiders never surrendered the lead again, clinging to a one-possession advantage when they garnered four offensive rebounds in the last 1:21 to seal the victory.
The tug-of-war tussle went back and forth throughout the first nine minutes with neither team holding more than a two-point edge. With the score knotted 6-6, Middle Tennessee went on a 6-0 run, holding Charlotte off the board for nearly four minutes and doubling up the 49ers, 12-6, before Alexander’s jumper at 8:00 ended the drought.
Sigmon then buried a 3-pointer, the only one of the day for the Niners, to cut the margin down to one, 12-11, as Charlotte’s defense forced five consecutive missed shots and prevented the Blue Raiders from scoring for a 4:35 span.
The two teams traded baskets for just over the next two minutes when sophomore Tori Carter ignited a half-closing 10-0 spurt in the final three minutes to send the 49ers into the intermission ahead six, 23-17.
Tyler’s layup started the second period and stretched the margin to eight. Two times over the next minute-and-a-half MT attempted to pull closer but the gap stayed at least six. Hammonds and junior Ayanna Holmes then hit layups, giving Charlotte its largest edge of 10, 31-21, with 15:49 remaining.
Cason then hit a 3-pointer on the next Blue Raiders possession and Rowe added her first points on consecutive layups, helping the home team register a 9-0 run to trim the difference to one, 31-30, at the 13:11 mark.
The 49ers would build their advantage back to as much as five, 39-34, with 8:16 remaining when Hammonds dropped in a layup, but that would be as high as it would be the rest of the contest. A 10-2 push by Middle Tennessee put it on top, 44-41, to stay.
Charlotte was within two after Tyler’s layup at 1:49, which would prove to be the final scoring of the afternoon. The 49ers forced the Blue Raiders into three consecutive misses, but each time, MT grabbed the offensive board to keep Charlotte from having a chance to tie it.
The Niners were faced with situations having to foul, and again, Middle Tennessee came up with the rebounds on its own end. After the last miss from Stewart with 9.2 seconds to go, freshman Lefty Webster hauled in the carom and Charlotte was able to draw up one last sequence.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, Hammonds was unable to get a shot off before the final horn and Charlotte fell just two points shy of pulling off the win.
The 49ers return to action inside Halton Arena this week, playing their final two home contests of the regular season. Charlotte will start the two-game set by playing host to FIU at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
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