Excitement led to confusion on Saturday evening as Jalynn Gregory stood on the court of the Ford Center at the Star in Frisco, Texas.
Moments after the Middle Tennessee State University women’s basketball team won the Conference USA Tournament with an 82-70 victory over Western Kentucky University, Gregory and her teammates were celebrating on the court after receiving the championship trophy.
“I was just standing there,” Gregory said. “I was celebrating with the trophy. We were all excited. That’s where my focus was.
“The announcers weren’t very loud. Everybody is looking at me cheering. The lady (Conference USA Commissioner Judy McLeod) is holding the trophy. She’s like, ‘Come on.’ I was really excited when that happened.”
After the initial hesitation, Gregory walked over to receive the most valuable player (MVP) award.
“Matt (Insell, the MTSU associate head coach) and Rick (Insell, head coach), both of them and Nina (Davis, a Lady Raider assistant coach), they all gave me a big hug,” Gregory said. “You could tell they were all really proud of me. They were like, ‘You deserved this.’ Just hearing that from them is great.”
Gregory poured in a game-high 24 points in the final, making all five of her 3-pointers and all seven of her free-throw attempts.
Insell took great satisfaction in the fact that Gregory was named the MVP when he was asked in the postgame press conference about some individuals who may have questioned his decision to the recruit the former Macon County High standout, a 2021 Miss Basketball finalist.
“I think she answered that question … she’s the MVP of the tournament,” Rick Insell — whose program will be making its 20th appearance in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament (the 11th in his 18 seasons at the helm of the program) — said. “I mean, good God, she can shoot the heck out of the ball. When she comes over the center line (at halfcourt), she’s open. She plays defense. She rebounds. She pushes the ball. She’s the MVP. If there’s one award that was got right this week, it’s right here.”
Gregory averaged 17.7 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game and made 18 of 20 free-throw attempts over the Lady Raiders’ three games in the tournament, which were played on consecutive days. It was the first time this season that MTSU has played three consecutive days, with the only other instance that the team played on back-to-back days being from Nov. 25-26 in the Las Vegas Invitational.
“It is rough,” Gregory said. “Mainly, especially in college, it’s a more physical game and faster pace. You’re worn out more. That’s where your mental game comes in. You just have to push to that next level.
“We have a great athletic trainer (Chandler Stephens) who gets us ready, who helps to get our legs back underneath us.”
Gregory has played all 40 minutes in nine contests this season and is averaging 36 minutes per game (the third highest total in the conference).
“Some weeks are worse than others,” Gregory said of fatigue. “You can feel it. That’s where, when I feel my legs going out on me, with my shot, I know I’m going to have to use more legs. It’s knowing and getting past that.
“It’s not a said thing (playing extensive minutes). It’s more of a known thing. It’s just an expectation they have of me. I know that.”
That’s an increase from Gregory’s 33.3 minutes per game last season, when she averaged 10.4 points per game in helping MTSU reached the semifinals of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
“Last year kind of prepared us for moments like this,” Gregory said. “We were all kind of young. We had a few experienced players, but I think from last year, we lost a couple of players, but we filled them in with players that have learned to fit into our system. We’ve all trusted the system and executed. That just prepared us for now.”
The 25th-ranked Lady Raiders have lost just four games.
“It definitely has gone a lot better than I thought it would be,” Gregory said. “We came in with high expectations since we made it to the WNIT (Final Four) last year. We knew we had a bunch of different pieces coming in and had to piece it all together.
“Our first goal was to win the regular season and then win the conference tournament and make the NCAA Tournament. Our main goal was not just to make it to the NCAA Tournament. It was to make a run in it. That’s one of the main things in doing it is actually believing that you can.”
Gregory produced just seven points in last Thursday’s tournament opener, a 84-53 rout of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. However, she followed that up with 22 points in Friday’s semifinal win over the University of Texas El Paso and then 24 points in the final.
“I’m real proud of our young ladies … proud to represent Middle Tennessee State University,” Insell said in Saturday night’s postgame press conference. “We put so much emphasis on women’s sports. The outside world doesn’t know that. They want to label us a mid-major, which, we’re not a mid-major. There’s 366 Division I basketball teams. When (MTSU President) Sidney McPhee and (athletic director) Chris Massaro hired me, I didn’t come in to coach a mid-major program. I came in to coach a Division I program, and that’s what we’ve got. I’m very proud to represent them. I’m very proud of our team, and I’m very proud of this young lady (Gregory) sitting beside me.”
Gregory — who is averaging 13.7 points per game — has scored 13 points or more in nine of the team’s last 10 games. She leads Conference USA in made 3-pointers (84) and three-point field-goal percentage (34%).
“We’ve had a couple of people with injuries,” Gregory said. “There’s been very few games with everybody playing. When somebody is out, somebody has to step up their game. It’s not just me. We had to pick up the slack. We’ve handled that adversity very well.
“Coming into this year, the coaches were expecting more of me. I just knew that I had to do my part for the team.”
In the postgame press conference following the championship game, Gregory was asked of her expectations of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
“That was my plan when I came here,” Gregory said. “That was one of the reasons why I chose to come here is because I didn’t want to just settle for making it to the conference tournament. I wanted to go to the NCAA Tournament and win some games there.”
Insell added, “When we are recruiting these young ladies, that’s what we tell them. When you come to Middle Tennessee, you’re going to get a great education. But you’re also going to get to play in front of great fans. Then, you’re going to get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. If you’re a competitor — which they are — that’s what you want to do. Ever since you’ve been in the third grade, you’ve been playing basketball and you had dreams of making it to the NCAA Tournament. I promise you that her daddy and momma spent a fortunate carrying her all over the country to play basketball to get to this point, to get to this point tonight.”
Gregory’s father and mother — Nathan and Tracy Gregory — along with her sister Keelyn and her grandparents, Mike and Debbie Prock, were among those fans in attendance in Frisco.
“It was up and down emotions,” Gregory said. “At the end of the game, I was so excited, happy and everything else. When I got to my family, I saw Keelyn, my little sister, and I balled. I don’t know why. It was just a roller coaster of emotions.
“It is extremely special (having family in attendance). Just getting to see how proud they are of me … they tell me all the time, but hearing it and seeing it are two different things. When they get to experience the same things I do, it’s great. I’m so blessed to have such a great family.”
Gregory recalls watching the NCAA Tournament with her family while growing up.
“I definitely watched it some,” Gregory said. “My family, we’re very much a basketball family. I’ve been around basketball my whole life. We would watch, just different teams. It was never a certain team.
“As a little girl, that’s one of things I dreamed of was to play and win some games in the tournament.”
Gregory’s dream, which is turning into a reality, brings with it an unsettling excitement.
“It is definitely crazy,” the All-Conference USA Second Team selection said. “Emotions have been all over the place. I love playing with this team. Getting to play with them has been amazing.”
MTSU (28-4) is the No. 11 seed in the Seattle Regional 4 and will open play on Saturday evening at 6 at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. The Lady Raiders will face the No. 6 seed and 21st-ranked University of Colorado, which is 23-8, enjoying its best season since the 2012-13 campaign and is making its second consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
It will be the first meeting between the two programs.
“It’s going to be super fun,” Gregory said. “I think we’re in a good position to make a run.”
Two years ago, Gregory ended her high-school career by leading Macon County High to its first state championship and was named the MVP of the state tournament.
“In some ways, it was similar,” Gregory said of again being named the MVP while winning a championship. “Here, now, we’re not done. We’ve only achieved one thing. We know … there’s more left.
“There are some similarities in how I felt … but there’s more left.”
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