Lady Toppers looking to correct mistakes before regular season

Sophomore guard Meral Abdelgawad (40) awaits the helping hands of her teammate senior guard Whitney Creech (5) after getting fouled on a layup during the Lady Toppers’ game against Kentucky Wesleyan in Diddle Arena on Thursday, Oct. 31 in Bowling Green.

Jesse Spencer

The WKU women’s basketball team opened exhibition play with a hard-fought 72-60 win over Division II opponent Kentucky Wesleyan on Thursday evening in Diddle Arena — a far cry from WKU’s dominant 104-74 win over Division II West Virginia State in its 2018 exhibition game.

Although the Lady Toppers’ contest against the Panthers was supposed to be a tuneup for the regular season opener against Power 5 Louisville, the exhibition game ended up revealing several potential holes that need to be addressed before games start counting for real.

WKU seemed to struggle at times on both ends of the court, shooting only 38% from the field and giving up 12 3-pointers to the Panthers over the course of the game.

To add to their struggles, the Lady Toppers shot an abysmal 28% from beyond the arc and made only 12-of-24 of their shots at the free-throw line — just 50%.

“I like playing Kentucky Wesleyan because they’re well-coached, they’re a good team, they were in the NCAA Tournament last year and they go five-out and they shoot the three,” head coach Greg Collins said. “That was the one style that really bothered us the most last year. UAB plays that way, Marshall plays that way, we lost to Ohio in the WNIT because they played that way. This was a style that if we’re going to play bigs, then we have to be able to guard this style. We didn’t for a while. Then we started learning and adjusting.”

Kentucky Wesleyan led the Lady Toppers 42-36 at the halftime break, but WKU was eventually able to turn its fortunes around in the second half by outscoring the Panthers 36-18.

Senior point guard Whitney Creech said Collins told the team at halftime that if they kept pushing and playing with good effort, the results would show up on the scoreboard.

“The biggest thing preached to us was intensity and playing as a team,” Creech said. “Playing together and working together. Even though we weren’t making shots, things weren’t going to go our way, we just needed to keep working and keep playing hard, and if we do those things then eventually it would all work out for us.”

Despite some rough patches, there were still many bright spots for WKU in victory, including Preseason All-Conference USA team members Dee Givens and Raneem Elgedawy.

Elgedawy played huge in the paint and muscled her way to 15 points and 16 rebounds by the end of the night, while Givens took control offensively late in the game by dropping in 13 of her 19 points in the second half and sparking a crucial 14-0 run in the fourth quarter.

Junior Sherry Porter and redshirt freshman Myriah Haywood also provided a huge lift at guard for the Lady Toppers.

Porter contributed 10 points off the bench, while Haywood brought energy and tenacity on the defensive end by giving Panther ball-handlers fits every time down the court.

Following the win, WKU will be faced with a daunting season-opening road matchup at ninth-ranked Louisville.

“I think we should keep working on defense,” Collins said. “We are going to work on sitting down, staying in front of the ball, challenging those threes, keeping them in front of you and making sure you box out the finish that possession.”

The Lady Toppers also opened the regular season against the Cardinals last season, falling 102-80 in Diddle Arena. Asia Durr, who became the 2nd overall pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft, led the way for the Cardinals with 33 points. Alexis Brewer, who’s currently rehabbing a labrum tear, took charge for WKU and scored 22 points in her first game after leaving West Virginia.

Louisville finished last season at 32-4 and made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament before an 80-73 loss to Connecticut. WKU finished the 2018-19 season at 20-15 and made it to the Round of 16 in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament before a 68-60 loss to Ohio.

WKU leads the all-time series 25-21 over Louisville, but the Lady Toppers have dropped two straight games against the Cardinals, including a 68-61 setback in 2016.

The much-anticipated showdown between the Lady Toppers and the Cardinals tips off at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the KFC Yum! Center. The game will be broadcast on ACC Network Extra.

Reporter Jesse Spencer can be reached at [email protected].