Lady Toppers still find success in year of uncertainty

WKU sophomore forward Raneem Elgedawy fades away her jumper over Old Dominion Maggie Robinson in day two of the C-USA Women’s Tournament at the Ford Center at The Star March 14 in Frisco, Texas. Elgedawy crushed the boards with 15 rebounds and wiped the paint with 20 points in the 74-60 Hilltopper victory. [HERALD/ Joseph Barkoff]

Drake Kizer

WKU women’s basketball has gotten used to finishing its season by hoisting the Conference USA Tournament trophy. That wasn’t the case this year, but the Lady Toppers still had success in a year in which they had to replace an accomplished head coach and two of the best players in the program’s history.

First-year head coach Greg Collins, who was tasked with replacing senior leaders Tashia Brown and Ivy Brown, faced an arduous early season run.

“This schedule is really tough and challenging,” Collins said on Oct. 26. “It’ll help give us what we need, which is experience. We’ve got good players, a good team and great young ladies, we just need some experience. This is going to give it to us quickly.”

Experience was costly, as the Lady Toppers started their season 2-6 after playing five teams ranked in the top 35 of the NCAA Rating Percentage Index as of March 16.

But even in losses, redshirt junior forward Dee Givens and sophomore forward Raneem Elgedawy stood out as the best players on WKU’s roster.

“Raneem, she’s quiet,” Givens said on Jan. 15. “So, she really doesn’t say much.

But when she’s out there, she knows what she’s doing. And sometimes, some days, she might feel down or she might be lacking in confidence, so I just try to help her build her confidence back up and, you know, just try to do what I can.”

Givens, the reigning C-USA Sixth Player of the Year, averaged 17.6 points per game (third in C-USA) and grabbed 91 steals, which garnered her first team all-conference and all-defensive team nods. Elgedawy, the reigning C-USA Freshman of the Year, averaged 15.8 points (sixth), 7.4 rebounds (seventh) and earned a second team all-conference spot.

The duo guided the Lady Toppers to a 15-7 finish, which landed WKU in a tie with Middle Tennessee State for third place in the C-USA standings once the dust had settled.

But the home stretch was not always easy, as WKU began C-USA play at 6-8 after going 1-7 against a mix of 2018 NCAA Tournament teams and ranked squads.

A victory against Union (Tennessee) on Dec. 29 ended non-conference play and started a winning streak that lasted through the first nine games of C-USA play. This streak was broken by a 69-56 hiccup in Diddle Arena against Southern Mississippi on Jan. 24.

“Rebounding killed us, first quarter, second quarter, the whole game,” redshirt junior guard Brewer said postgame.

The defeat ended up foreshadowing issues that would plague the Lady Toppers, as WKU soon fell to 14-13 and 8-5 in C-USA following a four-game losing streak.

“We don’t rebound, we don’t box out, we don’t defend,” head coach Greg Collins said on Feb. 9.

Four of the Lady Toppers’ last five were played on the road, but WKU managed to rebound in that stretch, snapping its skid in overtime against Marshall on Feb. 23.

The Lady Toppers got two more victories to end the year, including WKU’s 1,000th as a program and a win against MTSU on senior night that helped WKU finish 11-5 in C-USA and secure a first-round bye in the C-USA Tournament.

“I like our confidence, I like our toughness,” Collins said on March 7. “We just have to keep moving forward and take it down to Frisco.”

Winners of two consecutive C-USA Tournaments, WKU headed to the Ford Center at The Star on a three-game winning streak, setting up a “six-game championship.”

No. 4 seed WKU rolled past fifth-seeded Old Dominion in the quarterfinals 74-60 but met up with No. 24 Rice in the semifinals, the top-seeded team in the conference. The Lady Toppers fought valiantly but eventually became the 20th-straight win for the eventual C-USA champions in a 64-57 loss on March 15.

“I told them in the locker room that we would have another shot another day,” Collins said postgame.

Even though WKU is not NCAA Tournament-bound, the Lady Toppers’ next shot will likely come this week in Diddle Arena.

The Lady Toppers, 18-14 overall, are ranked 95th out of 351 schools in NCAA RPI as of March 16. As a result, the Lady Toppers will likely receive a bid to the 64-team Women’s National Invitation Tournament for the 12th time in program history on Monday night.

Four C-USA squads got in last year, which helps the Lady Toppers’ case. WKU has hosted a first-round game in its last six WNIT appearances and figures to do so again.

Whether the Lady Toppers play one more game or not, Collins said he is still proud of his team.

“It’s exciting about the future and where this program is,” Collins said on March 15. “We’ve been successful in the past. It’s not like we’re new to this situation, but as all growth happens, it takes — sometimes — some ups and downs.”

At press time, the “WNIT Selection Night” special had not yet taken place.

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