Lady Toppers’ season ends in C-USA semifinals against Rice

WKU redshirt junior guard Alexis Brewer (11) drives to the basket against Rice in the semifinal C-USA Tournament in the Ford Center at the Star on March 15 in Frisco,Texas. Brewer scored 17 points in the 57-64 loss. 

Drake Kizer

The WKU women’s basketball team ended its season as the latest victim of No. 24 Rice’s undefeated run against C-USA teams this year, becoming the Owls’ 20th straight win overall in the semifinals of the Conference USA Tournament on Friday evening.

(4) WKU went 5-for-11 from downtown in the first half, gaining as much as a 10-point advantage over (1) Rice. But after a 1-for-10 performance from behind the line in the second half, the Lady Toppers simply could not keep pace with the Owls. All meaningful statistics were close, but WKU fell short in a 64-57 loss in the Ford Center at The Star.

“Well, I feel like the last – really, the last five ballgames, we’ve played really hard together and that’s really the growth of this team,” head coach Greg Collins said. “They’re not relying on their individual skills as much as relying on their teammates and working hard together.

“Today, we were kind of in a spot where nobody really expected us to beat Rice – they’re undefeated and they’re ranked and Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year and so we were kind of just playing hard and playing free.”

The Lady Toppers were led by redshirt junior guard Alexis Brewer and redshirt sophomore forward Arame Niang. Brewer posted 17 points, while Niang scored 15 thanks to a 3-of-6 shooting performance from beyond the arc in the first half.

“I think Arame really stepped up big for us tonight coming out and hitting those threes,” Brewer said. “She really played hard tonight, offensively and defensively.”

Redshirt junior forward Dee Givens had eight points and 12 boards, which led WKU.

Sophomore forward Raneem Elgedawy won the opening tip over 6-foot-9 center Nancy Mulkey, but that was the end of her success against Mulkey in the opening frame.

By the 4:58 media timeout, Elgedawy had racked up two early fouls, committed three turnovers and scored only one bucket in her matchup with Mulkey on both ends.

Although the Owls led 10-6 at the 4:31 mark, Brewer stepped up in a big way for the Lady Toppers in Elgedawy’s absence due to foul trouble.

Brewer kept WKU close, trading jumpers with the Owls while Niang waited in the wings.

Down 16-11 with 0:58 left in the first quarter, Niang kick-started her game by checking in and netting two layups, including one that beat the buzzer at the end of the frame.

Niang’s layup pulled the Hilltoppers within two points after one quarter, 17-15.

The C-USA Player of the Year, junior Erica Ogwumike, opened the second quarter with a splash for Rice, netting a 3-pointer in Brewer’s eye. Brewer did not get discouraged, answering Ogwumike with a 3-pointer of her own to get WKU within two, 20-18.

Brewer’s make from deep lit a fire underneath the Lady Toppers, who went on to nail 3-pointers on each of their next three possessions.

Sophomore guard Sherry Porter netted the first, giving WKU the lead 21-20. Niang then netted two more back-to-back, extending WKU’s advantage to 27-20 with 4:56 left.

After enduring an extended scoring drought while the Lady Toppers went on a 15-0 scoring run, the Owls still finished the first half strong. Rice cut its 10-point deficit to only five with 1:32 left after a 3-pointer and a jumper from redshirt senior Shani Rainey.

Junior guard Whitney Creech’s half-court heave rimmed out at the buzzer, but the Lady Toppers still led at the half, 30-25.

Elgedawy checked back into the game after the break, which Mulkey used to her full advantage early, drilling two baskets before three minutes had elapsed.

Rice cut WKU’s lead to one at the 7:14 mark, but the Lady Toppers had an answer, as freshman guard Meral Abdelgawad converted the and-one layup to put WKU back up four, 35-31.

The Owls kept chipping away, tying the game 35-35 with 4:19 left to play. A 4-0 run helped WKU regain the lead, but Rice snatched the lead again moments before the period ended thanks to a last-second 3-pointer that beat the buzzer, 43-41.

Ogwumike lived up to her billing in the fourth quarter, scoring the first points of the period on a jumper before nailing six straight shots at the free-throw line. Before WKU finally scored at the 6:59 mark, Ogwumike had put the Lady Toppers in a 51-41 hole.

With 5:20 left to play in the contest, WKU had been outscored 13-4 in the fourth.

Porter split a pair of free throws, inadvertently starting WKU’s last-ditch effort to win the game and hold onto its season. After two quick layups from Brewer and Givens, the Lady Toppers trailed by only six points with 3:05 left in the contest, 56-50.

Brewer hit a jumper and made WKU’s only 3-pointer of the entire second half with under a minute to play, but it was too little, too late. Rice was 12-of-14 from the charity stripe in the game, which negated any chance the Lady Toppers had of keeping their season alive by intentionally fouling. The Owls flew the coop, notching a seven-point win.

“I think as a team we all left it out on the court,” Brewer said. “So, if this is our last game, I think we all are happy with our season. We’ve grown as a team and we’ll be ready next year.”

Following the loss, the Lady Toppers finished the C-USA Tournament with an 18-14 record. WKU will now await its postseason fate. Four C-USA squads received a bid to play in the Postseason Women’s National Invitation Tournament last year, but the Lady Toppers will have to wait until Monday to see if they made this year’s 64-team field.

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