Lady Toppers struggle defensively, fall at MTSU

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 had its Valentine’s Day turn sour against Middle Tennessee on Thursday evening, as the Lady Toppers dropped their third consecutive game in Conference USA play on the road in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Once again, WKU (14-12, 8-4 C-USA) failed to get over the hump and notch its ninth win in league action. MTSU (19-6, 10-2 C-USA) missed only three shots in the entire second half, shooting a school-record 67 percent from the floor for the game. The Blue Raiders out-scored WKU 40-20 in the paint in their 81-69 triumph in the Murphy Center.

“Despite our best efforts in practice, we’ve gotten better, but we’re still not good enough on defense,” head coach Greg Collins said. “We had a hard time guarding, like a lot of people have, Johnson in the post. I mean, that’s not any secret and she’s an excellent post player. Arame and Raneem worked really hard, Jae’Lisa worked really hard in there, but she probably collected 13 or 14 fouls on us trying to guard her in there.”

The Lady Toppers were led by redshirt junior guard Alexis Brewer, who returned to the starting lineup for the first time since Jan. 24 and notched 13 points in 39 minutes.

Redshirt junior forward Dee Givens added 12 points on 10-of-10 shooting from the charity stripe, but converted only one field goal attempt on the night.

The first five minutes of the opening period were a defensive struggle between both squads, as neither team notched more than three points before a media timeout at the 4:57 mark. Freshman guard Meral Abdelgawad and junior guard Whitney Creech notched all three of WKU’s points with a layup and a made free throw, respectively.

After the game was knotted 3-3 for over two minutes, Givens gave the Lady Toppers the lead by drilling a pair of free throws. MTSU quickly answered with a layup, tying the game 5-5 with 2:51 to play in the opening quarter and kicking off a back-and-forth run.

Senior guard Sidnee Bopp sank a 3-pointer and a layup with under a minute left, giving the Lady Toppers a narrow 15-14 lead heading into the second frame.

MTSU regained the lead with a layup 20 seconds into the second quarter, kicking off another run where neither squad could quite gain leverage over the other.

A layup from sophomore forward Raneem Elgedawy gave the Lady Toppers a 19-18 lead at the 7:05 mark, but the Blue Raiders netted back-to-back buckets, forcing Collins to call for a timeout. MTSU scored once again following the timeout, extending its scoring run to 6-0 and its lead over WKU to 24-19 with 5:42 remaining in the half.

Other than a made layup one minute later, MTSU failed to register another point before the halftime break. The Lady Toppers attempted to take advantage, but WKU was also held scoreless for over three minutes late in the period. Redshirt junior guard Alexis Brewer went 1-for-2 at the foul line with 0:15 left to play, pulling WKU within one.

Despite not scoring for the final 4:43 of the first half, MTSU held a 26-25 halftime lead.

A layup from Creech gave WKU the lead once again, but MTSU would not the Lady Toppers hold onto it for long. The Blue Raiders opened up a three-point lead at the 7:39 mark and held onto that same advantage until the 4:41 media timeout.

Following the stoppage, MTSU and WKU got into a free-throw shooting contest.

Both the Blue Raiders and the Lady Toppers shot eight shots at the foul line down the stretch in the third period. Other than a jumper from Creech, WKU did not manage a made field goal for the rest of the period.

MTSU continued to churn offensively, outscoring WKU 24-18 in the third.

The Lady Toppers began the fourth quarter trailing 50-43, clawing back to within four following a 3-pointer from Bopp. MTSU answered with a 5-0 run, Down, but not yet out, the Lady Toppers stormed back to within three following an Elgedawy and-one, 58-55.

WKU never got closer than three points, falling behind thanks to a 7-0 run that essentially ended any chance of a comeback.

The Blue Raiders refused to stop scoring, missing only one shot from the field in the fourth quarter and out-scoring the Lady Toppers 31-26 in the final 10 minutes.

“I guess you could say it was kind of frustrating,” Givens said. “You know, we tried our best on defense and sometimes we didn’t get low enough on the drives and they got easy buckets, so, I guess that you could say it was frustrating.”

The closing moments of the contest saw senior forward Jae’Lisa Allen knock down two jumpers for WKU. By then, the game was out of reach, as the Lady Toppers stumbled their way to a 12-point loss in the 73rd edition of the 100 Miles of Hate rivalry.

Following the loss, the Lady Toppers will be back on the floor in just two days. WKU will stay on the road, paying a visit to Alabama-Birmingham (20-5, 8-4 C-USA). The Blazers are led by C-USA Preseason Team members Deanna Kuzmanic and Rachel Childress. The Lady Toppers will look for a critical away win Saturday at 2 p.m. in Bartow Arena.

Reporter Drake Kizer can be reached at 270-745-2653 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @drakekizer_.