Title run comes to an end: Women’s basketball falls to Middle Tennessee in CUSA Championship, 67-51

The Liberty University women’s basketball team culminated an explosive season with a deep run in the Conference USA Championships, making it to the finals March 16 but falling short to the top-seeded Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders in a 67-51 defeat. 

“We wish (Middle Tennessee) nothing but the best as they go into the NCAA tournament,” Lady Flames Head Coach Carey Green said. “I’m certainly proud of our team this year. There was a point in (the year) that we were like seven games under .500. We were eighth out of nine in the conference.”

The Lady Flames traveled to Huntsville, Alabama, as the No. 2 seed and started the weekend off playing seventh-seeded Western Kentucky in the quarterfinals of the tournament. The Flames pulled off the 62-59 nail-biter led by CUSA Freshman of the Year Asia Boone’s 17 points. The Flames then faced the No. 6 Aggies from New Mexico State in the semifinals, defeating them 82-70 to punch their ticket to the CUSA Championship Game. 

The Flames started the championship contest struggling from the field, going 6-32 and shooting 18.8% from the field and 15.4% from three. The Blue Raiders shot 10-30 in the opening two quarters, ending the half on a 22-9 run to head into the locker room with a 28-17 lead.

The Flames refused to go out without a fight, cutting the Blue Raider lead to
51-43 with a few minutes left in the game. Unfortunately, the efforts in the game’s dying minutes fell short, as Conference USA’s top dog remained perfect against conference opponents and defeated the Flames 67-51. 

Photo by Chase Gyles

The Blue Raiders were led by center Anastasiia Boldyreva, who finished the game with 21 points and six rebounds. Conference Player of the Year Savannah Wheeler also chipped in with 15. Redshirt junior forward Bella Smuda led the Flames with 21 points and 15 rebounds, and Boone notched the team’s second-most points with 11.

“It means a lot. I’m really proud of this team,” Smuda said. “Obviously, the game didn’t go how we wanted it today. We were 6-12. To get ourselves to this point, I’m just so proud that we never quit. I’m excited to see what the future holds for next year even though it didn’t end the way we wanted today.”

The Flames finished their inaugural season in Conference USA with a record of 18-15 led by Smuda and junior guard Emma Hess. Smuda was named to the CUSA All-Conference First Team as well as the All-Defensive Team. Hess was also named to the All-Conference First Team. Boone was named the CUSA Freshman of the Year, All-Freshman Team and Second-Team All-Conference. 

The Blue Raiders finished the season 29-4 under Wheeler’s lead. The Blue Raiders also finished their season on a 16-game winning streak en route to an undefeated conference record and the outright regular season champs. 

“They’re an exceptional, good team,” Green said. “They have a lot of experience. If you look at their roster, they’re a little older than we are. … Having the opportunity to compete for a championship, I’m so proud of (our team).”

Stacy is a sports reporter for the Liberty Champion

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