Lady Toppers look to make run after getting first-round bye in C-USA Tournament

WKU Ladytopper Raneem Elgedawy (15) drives through the key looking to put the ball into the hole past Middle Tennessee State University defender Alex Johnson at E.A. Diddle Arena March 7 in Bowling Green. Elgedawy helped the Ladytoppers best the Lady Raiders 67-56 with 14 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists.

Drake Kizer

The WKU women’s basketball team returned to Diddle Arena last week for its first home game in almost a month with one goal: defeating arch-nemesis Middle Tennessee on senior night, which would secure a first-round bye in the Conference USA Tournament.

The Lady Toppers, slotted fourth in league standings prior to their final game of the regular season, have never entered the C-USA tournament without a top-four seed.

In the last game on its calendar, the squad’s postseason fate rested on one more win.

“I think it brings another level of focus to the game,” head coach Greg Collins said. “The kids are obviously a little more intense when you’re playing your rival and it’s a home game and senior night. So, I think we’ll get their best shot, and they’ll get our best shot, and so that should make for a fun atmosphere.”

WKU (17-13, 11-5 C-USA) secured the first-round bye it so desperately fought for all year, as the Lady Toppers turned in perhaps their most valiant half-court defensive effort to date in a wire-to-wire win that landed them in a tie with MTSU for third place.

The Lady Toppers came out on top in their second meeting with MTSU (20- 9, 11-5 C-USA) mostly because WKU was able to completely reverse its fortune on defense.

In the Blue Raiders’ easy 81-69 victory on Feb. 14 in the Murphy Center, MTSU shot a school-record 67 percent from the field, and senior forward Alex Johnson forced a combined 12 fouls on WKU posts Raneem Elgedawy, Arame Niang and Jae’Lisa Allen.

But after weeks of preparation, the Lady Toppers found a way to correct their mistakes, holding MTSU to 42 per- cent shooting from the floor. Elgedawy, Niang and Allen also combined for only five fouls in a 67-56 win that concluded WKU’s taxing slate.

Johnson still scored a game-high 17 points for MTSU, but Collins said rotating Elgedawy and Allen, a graduate transfer from Virginia, disrupted her game.

“It really worked well subbing Jae’Lisa and Raneem because they both guard her differently,” Collins said. “So, as soon as she got used to one, we could change and go to the other and she’d have a different type of defense facing her. We’ve not had that luxury in the past, and I was really proud of Jae’Lisa, especially on senior night.”

After finishing the year on a high note, WKU will descend upon Frisco, Texas, this week.

Heading west, WKU will hope junior guard Whitney Creech can continue her recent resurgence. Creech followed five assists and a season-high 16 points against North Texas (14-14, 7-9 C-USA) on March 2 with 15 points and four assists against MTSU.

Creech peaking in March wouldn’t exactly be new, as she was named to the

C-USA All-Tournament Team after averaging nine points and 5.7 assists per game last season.

Collins said teams stopped respecting Creech’s ability to score, which in turn prompted him to tell Creech to start shooting so she could force defenders to cover her again.

“These past two games I’ve just been trying to be more aggressive because they’re giving me shots,” Creech said. “So, I just need to take them and knock them down.”

Since Creech has been making buckets, defenses have been forced to defend the Lady Toppers differently, which redshirt junior forward Dee Givens said is great for everyone.

“I mean, it’s about time,” Givens said with a laugh. “She’s always in the gym. Like, behind me, she’s the second-most person that’s always in the gym. You know, so it’s about time that her time’s finally come and she’s putting points on the board for us, and it’s taken pressure off Me, Neem, Lex and Meral, too.”

After receiving the fourth seed, the Lady Toppers will not play until the quarterfinals.

WKU’s opponent will be the winner of the first-round matchup between fifth-seeded Old Dominion (20-9, 10-6 C-USA) and twelfth-seeded Florida Atlantic (5-24, 2-14 C-USA).

ODU, picked eleventh in the preseason poll, just defeated FAU 68-64 in its regular-season finale last week in Boca Raton, Florida.

The Lady Toppers are 2-0 this season against ODU and FAU, defeating the Lady Monarchs 75-60 on Jan. 5 in Diddle Arena and the Owls 81-50 on Jan. 19 in Florida.

WKU, the two-time defending C-USA champions, head to the Lone Star State on a three-game winning streak, which Collins said sets up a “six-game championship.”

“I like our confidence, I like our toughness,” Collins said. “We just have to keep moving forward and take it down to Frisco.”

WKU will begin its quest for three wins in three days on Thursday at 11:30 a.m. at The Star in Frisco, Texas.

Women’s basketball reporter Drake Kizer can be reached at 270-745-2653 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @drakekizer_.