MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders got sick of coming close to big wins only to blow leads late. This time, they closed out a tough opponent.
Icelyn Elie scored 23 points and Ebony Rowe added 21 while grabbing 12 rebounds as Middle Tennessee upset sixth-ranked Kentucky 70-58 Wednesday night matching the biggest win in program history over a ranked team.
Middle Tennessee (9-5) had chances to pull off big wins already this season only to blow leads against Penn State (No. 17 ESPN/USA Today, No. 16 AP), Arkansas and Georgia Tech. This time, the Blue Raiders matched their biggest victory ever over a ranked team going back to 1977 and an 80-78 win over No. 6 Tennessee Tech.
"We've learned from previous games, and I feel like we knew we could've beat Penn State," Blue Raiders guard Kortni Jones said. "We felt like we could've beat Arkansas. You look back at those films, it kind of makes your heart ache a little bit. We could've been in the top 25 rankings. Tonight Ebony made a statement we've given away too many. Tonight, we're going to have take this one home."
That they did against the only ranked opponent to visit this season, grabbing the lead with 10:42 left in the first half before leading by as much as 17 three times. Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell said his Blue Raiders had been working on being mentally tougher, and it showed most at the free throw line where they went 19 of 22.
"It's a big win for our program. It's something that could possibly help us at the end of the season."
This meant plenty to Rowe, a native of Lexington, Ky.
"Nice is an understatement," Rowe said. "I wanted it not just for me because it's my hometown but my team because we've worked so hard. We've had some frustrating losses this year and people were down on us a little bit. We stuck together. We know we have a good team. This win, we can only go further from here. We can build on it. I'm excited to see what we do next."
Jones added 15 points for Middle Tennessee, which overcame 28 turnovers against Kentucky's "40 minutes of dread" defense with a 39-38 rebounding edge.
For Kentucky, it's the second loss in three games. The Wildcats (11-2) shot a season-low 32.8 percent from the floor and were just 2 of 18 from 3-point range. A'dia Mathies, the Wildcats' leading scorer averaging 16.1 points per game, scored eight. Bria Goss led Kentucky with 12.
"I thought our effort was not up to the level of Middle Tennessee's over the 40-minute period," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "Clearly, we had some very good moments of effort out there when we were causing trouble in our full-court press. I told the team you don't get any credit for past results. You have to do it every night."
The Wildcats had just moved up two spots in the top 25 this week to their highest ranking since the 1982-83 season.
But they had their own problems. They turned the ball over 18 times in the first 20 minutes alone. They shot only 28 percent (7 of 25) from the floor and missed eight of nine attempts beyond the arc. Goss said the Wildcats can't get down when they start slow.
"We got to keep moving forward and looking at the positives. They weren't scoring either," Goss said.
Middle Tennessee missed its first seven shots. The Blue Raiders nearly matched Kentucky with 16 turnovers in the first half, but they managed to outscore the Wildcats 15-7 off the turnovers in leading 37-22 at halftime.
Kentucky led only twice, the last at 4-3 on a bucket by Goss, and tied it at 9-all on a 3-pointer by Keyla Snowden from the top of the key.
Elie put Middle Tennessee ahead for good with a layup at 10:42 left. Shanice Cason started a 19-5 run with a pair of free throws with Cason and Jones each hitting 3-pointers before Jones capped the spurt with a three-point play that put Middle Tennessee up 37-20 with 29.3 seconds left.
Kentucky got within five twice, the last on a jumper by Azia Bishop at 53-48 with 5:42 left. Rowe scored on a layup, then hit a pair of free throws. Middle Tennessee put the game away when Rowe hit a free throw, then missed the second with 4:28 left. Cason go the rebound, tossed it to Jones, who immediately sank a 3 to push it back to double digits for good.