Lady Toppers continue to fight, gain experience through WNIT

WKU guard Sherry Porter attempts a floater in the lane during WKU’s win over Morehead State in the second round of the WNIT. 

Drake Kizer

WKU women’s basketball had an opportunity to extend its season and gain valuable experience in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament last week.

Though the 2018-19 Lady Toppers failed to notch their third-straight Conference USA Tournament title, which would have simultaneously secured the program’s third-straight NCAA Tournament bid, WKU did not want to waste its chance for more progress.

“We were thrilled to get to keep playing,” head coach Greg Collins said last Wednesday. “There’s a lot of teams in the country that aren’t playing, and so, we’re glad that we are one of those teams that’s still got a chance to win ball games.”

Similar to its feverish pursuit of a first-round bye to end the regular season, WKU (20-14) once again thrived in win-now mode. The Lady Toppers downed Miami (Ohio) (23-9) and Morehead State (24-11).

Now, WKU is one of 16 teams left from what was originally a 64-team field.

Prior to the team’s opening-round matchup, redshirt sophomore forward Arame Niang said losing in the C-USA Tournament was hard, but the Lady Toppers weren’t looking past their postseason opportunity in the WNIT.

“We still have games,” Niang said last Wednesday. “We just have to keep pushing and be like the same team and just try to win over there, because that’s the only opportunity we got.”

WKU opened its WNIT slate on the road for the first time since 2002 and hoped to improve on its lowly 4-10 record in 14 total away games.

The RedHawks led WKU by 11 points in the third quarter on Thursday, but 13 points from redshirt junior forward Dee Givens in the frame helped the Lady Toppers erase their deficit. WKU also dominated the glass 37-26 on its way to a 67-63 road win.

“You know, it’s a great opportunity to always have another chance to play basketball,” Givens said Sunday. “I mean, this is the game we love — we’ve been playing this since we was little kids, so, you know, it’s a great feeling to always play.”

The Lady Toppers returned home for their second-round matchup feeling confident, as WKU had won eight of its last nine WNIT games hosted in Diddle Arena.

Late in the third quarter, MSU led WKU by four points. Luckily, redshirt junior guard Alexis Brewer took over the game soon after, helping the Lady Toppers outscore the Eagles 19-14 in the final period and eventually earn a hard-fought 68-65 victory at home.

The win helped move the Lady Toppers to 13-3 in WNIT home games.

Brewer, whom Collins called “by far the most confident player on the floor” postgame, said WKU kept fighting even after falling short of another NCAA Tournament bid.

“I think after the Rice game, we were really upset,” Brewer said. “We gave it our all, and we didn’t come out with the win. But we’re in the WNIT, and now we’re in the Sweet 16 of it, and I think that everyone is just happy that we’re here, and we’re ready to work and keep getting wins.”

After notching two victories, the Lady Toppers are headed to the third round of the WNIT in Athens, Ohio. WKU will square off against Ohio (29- 5), which stormed back after halftime to defeat Middle Tennessee State (23- 11) 59-57 on Sunday afternoon.

The Bobcats will be WKU’s fourth opponent from the Mid-American Conference this season. The Lady Toppers fell to Ball State and Central Michigan before C-USA play began in January, and WKU just knocked off Miami (Ohio) last week.

The Lady Toppers lead the all-time series over the Bobcats 6-0 with three wins at home and three on the road, but the two teams have not met since December 1993.

With the program sitting at 18-13 all-time in the WNIT and primed to take a crack at another appearance in the quarterfinals after getting there in 2016, Collins said he is glad his players are getting primed for the future and their next shot in the C-USA or NCAA Tournament.
“The difference [in playing in the

WNIT] is, you know, last year we played in the NCAA Tournament — played one game,” Collins said. “We got smacked, we got on the bus and came home. So, this time we’re getting some real, valuable experience, some close, tough ball games when you win or you go home, and so, you can’t replace this. You can practice all day long, but you’re not going to be able to recreate this, so there’s a lot of positives to being able to keep playing.”

WKU and Ohio will begin their clash Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Convocation Center.

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