The Lady Raiders wrapped up their regular season schedule on March 5, falling just one game shy of sharing the Conference USA title with 25th-ranked UTEP. While Brea Edwards, who recently received All-C-USA first-team honors, has been the clear-cut star behind the team’s success, a local flavor has provided the energy that a star needs to shine. These three Middle Tennessee basketball products have each made their contribution known:
Ty Petty should be no stranger to those who have followed girls basketball in Murfreesboro for several years, or to those who have followed the Lady Raiders for the last two seasons. Now a junior at MTSU, Petty came to MT after a stellar career at Riverdale High School in Murfreesboro. Petty helped the Warriors to three TSSAA Class AAA State Championships in four years which included her senior-year squad being named national champs by both ESPN and maxpreps.com.
Despite her contributions, she came to MT playing in the shadow of her high school teammate, Olivia Jones. While Jones received multiple conference honors as a freshman, Petty averaged only five minutes a game, yet she made huge strides in the off-season between her freshman and sophomore campaigns and secured the starting point guard spot. She seized the opportunity and finished fifth in C-USA in assists with 4.4 per game, and her 11.6 points per game ranked second on the team.
In her junior season, Petty built on those numbers. No longer playing in Jones’s shadow (Petty’s play in fact surpassed that of Jones’ even before her departure) Ty has become the straw that stirs the drink. Four times this season Petty posted a double-double, and her 5.6 assists per game lead C-USA while she once again ranked second on the team in scoring with 12.3 points per game.
Petty has received praise from every direction this season. She was recently named All-C-USA second team, but perhaps more flattering is the praise she’s gotten from coaches.
“She’s a winner, Ty Petty’s been a winner her whole career,” said MT head coach Rick Insell. “She was two-time MVP of the state tournament. I think she was overlooked a lot on that team, but she’s probably the straw that stirred the drink on that high school team and we were very fortunate to be able to get her.”
Ole Miss coach Matt Insell, Rick’s son, shared his father’s admiration of Petty in a statement early in the season.
“If Petty plays well, Middle Tennessee plays well,” Matt Insell said. “I think the C-USA coaches have it all wrong, because the best player in the league is Petty.”
Growing up in the tiny town of Woodbury, Tenn., (Population 2,723 as of 2013) it is hard to be recognized by even nearby metropolitan areas. However, if there was ever a big fish in a small pond it is Abbey Sissom.
Sissom grew up in a basketball family in a city where everyone knows everyone, and everyone in Woodbury knows about the Sissoms and basketball. As Woodbury resident Imogene Rogers exclaimed, “Whew! Those girls can play some ball!”
Both of Abbey’s parents coach basketball. Her father, Gaylon, formerly was an assistant coach at Cannon County High School, but now coaches AAU. Her mother, Suzette, currently coaches at Woodland Elementary where her younger sister, eighth-grader Anna Grace, currently plays. Older sister Emily recently finished her playing career at Division-II Union University, which holds a rich tradition in women’s basketball.
Abbey herself may be the best of the Sissoms. She received numerous honors for both her district and state. Among those honors was Class AA Miss Basketball which she received in her senior year of high school after being a finalist the previous two years. She showed all-around production that season with averages of 24.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.5 assist and 2.5 steals.
As a freshman with the Lady Raiders, Sissom provided valuable minutes off the bench, which was to be her role again this season. However, after the departure of Olivia Jones in January, Sissom was thrust into the starting line-up.
“It’s been really good to just have the opportunity to go out there and play. You know, we all work so hard day in and day out, and just to see that hard work we put in pay off means a lot to me,” stated Sissom.
Sissom has truly risen to the unexpected occasion as well. She has seemingly gotten better with each start, and has looked more comfortable with her new role each time out. A quality that has not gone unnoticed by Ty Petty.
“Abbey’s definitely one of the girls who’ve stepped up. Coaches have asked her to step up and become a player. She’s definitely stepped up and done some great things to contribute to our wins,” says Petty.
While her season averages may not raise the eyebrows of the casual fan, stats fall far short of quantifying the value that she has provided since earning the starting role.
“She knows how to play the game. She’s a great shooter. She’s doing great, I’m very happy with her. Very satisfied,” Insell said. “She’s very heady, knows how to pass the ball. She’s a team player . . . she gets a little fatigued because we ask her to guard the best perimeter player, but I’m very happy with her.”
When asked how it feels drawing the assignment of the best perimeter player every night, Abbey responded, “It means a lot to me when coach does say he’s putting me on the best player, but it also puts a lot of pressure on me that I don’t need to let him down.”
While Sissom had drawn interest from larger SEC schools such as Vanderbilt and Missouri, as well as Delaware, the alma mater of top WNBA player Elena Delle Donne, MTSU was always her favorite.
“I’ve always thought it would be awesome to play for MTSU and be close to home. So, this is an opportunity I’ve always dreamed of having,” Sissom said.
Before the season began, Insell referred to Alex Johnson as one of the best recruits in the nation. Insell must have been right on the money, as Alex Johnson was named C-USA Freshman of the Year earlier this week.
Johnson played her high school ball in Murfreesboro at Blackman High School where she lettered all four years. While there, she helped her team to back-to-back TSSAA Class AAA State Championships in her junior and senior seasons. Her 2014 team was named national champions by ESPN, maxpreps.com, and USA Today. She finished her high school career highly decorated on and off the court, garnering multiple honors. It is no surprise that Insell considers himself very lucky to have landed her.
“This is where I’m from, you know, home. This is where it felt right for me to be . . . I couldn’t see myself anywhere else,” Johnson stated.
In an interesting wrinkle, Johnson actually played AAU ball for Matt Insell, and his Ole Miss team was on her short list. However, it was the elder Insell who scooped up the prized recruit, something which Johnson says is occasionally the topic of jokes by Rick at practices.
Johnson earned her starting spot right away, but she seemed to take it personal when she didn’t receive the start in the fourth game of the season. In the following game against Nevada Johnson was in the starting line-up once again and went 9-10 from the field for 20 points. It was her first double-digit scoring night, but it was the first of many to come. Since then Johnson has scored 10 or more points 16 times.
Much like Sissom, Johnson took on a new role when Jones left the program, and then grew in that role. She went from being the fourth offensive option to the second and has averaged 14.3 points per game since then.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been a challenge, but I know I had to step up,” Johnson said.
Johnson credits fellow freshman Alex Smith with her development. Smith hasn’t played this year, but if you’ve seen the Lady Raiders play this season you’ve probably seen her. At six feet and four inches and a frame that might intimidate a football player she is hard to miss.
“It started in practice just being defended by Alex. We don’t play many players like her with her size and her ability, so really her just pushing me in practice has allowed me to go into the game more confident with making my moves and putting it against the glass.”
The red hot Lady Raiders will see if they can parlay their recent surge into a C-USA Tournament title when they tip-off as the second seed this Thursday. While the tournament will be held in Birmingham, the Murfreesboro area will be well represented.