Lady Toppers looking to build momentum against MTSU on senior night

WKU forward Raneem Elgedawy puts up a shot against Middle Tennessee State’s Alex Johnson at the Murphy Center on Thursday, during the Lady Toppers’ 81-69 loss.

Drake Kizer

The WKU women’s basketball team ­trekked to Denton, Texas, for the final game of its brutal four-game road swing with two important numbers in mind.

The first number was four, the Lady Toppers’ place in Conference USA standings prior to its road rematch with North Texas (14-13, 7-8 C-USA), while the second number was 999, WKU’s all-time win total prior to its second meeting with the Mean Green.

WKU knew that a win would not only make the program only the 11th in NCAA Division I history to reach the 1,000-win mark, but a win coupled with losses by Marshall (15-13, 9-6 C-USA) and Southern Mississippi (17-11, 9-6 C-USA) would also secure the squad a much-needed bye in the first round of the upcoming C-USA Tournament.

“Well, I want to focus on the win first and take care of that next game, that’s the most important thing,” head coach Greg Collins said after practice on Friday. “Because as great as it is to be a part of the tradition and to be able to contribute a little bit to that, you don’t want to be coming up short.

“You want to be the one to get it done and so we want to focus on this game and then after that we can talk more about what that means. It means a lot, but I’d rather just focus on North Texas and we’ll talk about that afterward.”

WKU (16-13, 10-5 C-USA) accomplished everything it could directly control, extending its winning streak to two straight against North Texas with its 1,000th win as a program.

“The game we played against them here, we really didn’t really have any energy,” redshirt junior Dee Givens said. “You know, we weren’t rebounding, we weren’t boxing out and we really weren’t playing well on defense. So, you know, I think our focus is more on rebounding and defense and boxing out.”

The Lady Toppers did not exactly follow that game plan, getting out-rebounded 43-24 and allowing North Texas to shoot 48 percent from the floor. But WKU translated 22 turnovers into 23 points, notching a critical 71-66 win on the road in the Super Pit.

Despite getting out-rebounded by a large margin for the second time against the Mean Green, WKU allowed only seven second-chance points compared to 20 in its 76-67 home loss to North Texas on Feb. 9.

Junior guard Whitney Creech, who collected five assists and a season-high 16 points against North Texas, said she and her teammates are still growing.

“I think we were making a more conscious effort to box out,” Creech said. “So, even if we didn’t get the rebound, we were still in pretty good position to defend. I think that was probably the biggest difference, even though we gave up a few offensive rebounds we were still in pretty good position to defend them on that second chance opportunity.”

Collins was not quite so optimistic about his team’s continued struggles on the glass.

“We never really made any progress on the boards,” Collins said. “Until we become better at stopping the other team from getting second chance opportunities, we’re going to really be in some battles and we’re going to have a hard time winning ball games against really good teams in the conference tournament.”

Playing three games in three days instead of four in four would make WKU’s road much easier. But the first-round bye continued to elude the Lady Toppers since Southern Miss, the only team that could potentially break a tie over WKU, won its fourth straight.

The path to a first-round bye is much simpler now that it has been all season for the Lady Toppers: defeat rival Middle Tennessee (20-8, 11-4 C-USA) on Senior Night this week and WKU will clinch the fourth and final spot atop the C-USA leaderboard.

WKU would also get a bye if Southern Miss falls at Charlotte (16-11, 8-7 C-USA) in a battle between two squads currently enjoying four-game win streaks.

But after picking up another important conference victory, the Lady Toppers will want to conclude their regular season slate with a win and the guaranteed scenario for a bye.

The Blue Raiders blasted the Lady Toppers on Feb. 14 in the Murphy Center, with MTSU using a school-record 67 percent shooting from the floor to defeat WKU 81-69.

Givens went 1-for-5 from the field that night, which MTSU head coach Rick Insell said was a result of his team’s efforts to deny Givens the ball and get her out of rhythm.

“She’s just such a great shooter period,” Insell said postgame. “Anytime she loads it up, you’re in trouble. We just wanted to keep her from loading it up.”

While MTSU will likely target Givens again, senior forward Alex Johnson will be the Lady Toppers’ point of emphasis. Sophomore forward Raneem Elgedawy and redshirt sophomore forward Arame Niang both fouled out trying to guard Johnson on Feb. 14.

“We’ll watch the film and try to do a better job of two things mainly: making sure we try to make it harder for [Johnson] to get those post-ups in there and guard her a little more cleanly,” Collins said postgame. “Then second, we’ll try to make sure we sit down and guard on the perimeter and not let those drives get to the rim so easily.”

The Lady Toppers will also honor three players in a special postgame ceremony: seniors Sidnee Bopp, Jae’Lisa Allen and Kayla Smith.

WKU will look to give its seniors a winning send-off Thursday at 6 p.m. in Diddle Arena.

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