The WKU women’s basketball team kicked off Conference USA play with a pair of victories that pushed the Lady Toppers to a .500 record on the year.
Before WKU (8-8, 2-0 C-USA) took the floor for its first two games of 2019, the program was sitting at 6-8, a record which could have been viewed as an accomplishment considering the team’s difficult non-conference slate.
“We’ve had good improvement all season,” head coach Greg Collins said. “We’ve had a couple games where I felt like we didn’t improve as much as we should have, but for the most part, they’ve continued to grow not just individually, but as a team throughout the season.”
The Lady Toppers faced eight opponents who made the NCAA Tournament in 2018, posting a 1-7 mark. Four of those teams were also ranked in the top 15.
However, an attainable goal was still in sight: beginning 2-0 against C-USA opponents, a feat the Lady Toppers accomplished during their first week of league play thanks to a major improvement in the team’s performance during the third period.
Prior to C-USA action, the third quarter was not particularly kind to the Lady Toppers.
In eight non-conference losses, WKU was outscored by its opponents during the third period 176-128. Of those eight losses, WKU outscored its opponents during the third frame only three times.
Collins took notice, emphasizing the importance of starting the second half strong against UNC Charlotte (8-6, 0-2 C-USA) on Jan. 3.
“At halftime, coach Collins told us to come out and look at it like the score is 0-0, like the game is just now starting,” senior guard Sidnee Bopp said. “And so, that’s what we did.”
Though the Lady Toppers began the third quarter leading 42-32, WKU did not let off the gas for one second. Redshirt junior forward Dee Givens nailed a trio of 3-pointers, scoring 15 of her new career-high 26 points in the third period alone. By the time 10 minutes had elapsed, WKU had outscored Charlotte 23-9 and was leading 65-41.
“Charlotte has made some comebacks and Charlotte has some great three-point shooters,” Collins said. “So, it doesn’t take long to for a lead to evaporate when you’ve got that kind of firepower from the perimeter.”
The Lady Toppers went on to defeat the 49ers 76-58, improving to 7-8 on the year and also maintaining a sparkling 5-0 mark in conference openers since joining C-USA.
Two days later, WKU welcomed Old Dominion (9-5, 0-2 C-USA) to Diddle Arena. A successful third quarter proved to be critical to victory once again.
The Lady Toppers began the third quarter leading the Lady Monarchs 36-31. For the second consecutive game, WKU enjoyed an offensive explosion during the frame.
This time around, freshman guard Meral Abdelgawad had the hot hand as the reigning C-USA Freshman of the Week nailed three 3-pointers and scored 11 of her 22 points during the third period alone.
Following the Cairo, Egypt, native’s standout performance, Abdelgawad received her second consecutive Freshman of the Week award on Monday.
“She’s just kind of like a stick of dynamite,” junior guard Whitney Creech said. “When she gets hot, you know, everybody just feeds off of that. She gets excited, we all get excited, so she’s really fun to play with and I’m really happy to see her doing well here.”
Thanks to Abdelgawad’s stellar third quarter, WKU outscored ODU 21-11 and lead 57-42 heading into the final quarter of action and held onto the lead late, obtaining a 75-60 victory that gave the Lady Toppers a new outlook on their season.
“We knew that Old Dominion has a great team, a bunch of really good players and young kids and they’re going to be in the mix of this thing at the end,” Collins said. “So, our players, they’ve taken our halftime adjustments and they’ve come back out and played with the same intensity or even greater intensity than the first [half].”
By defeating both Charlotte and ODU, the Lady Toppers etched their names into the record books. Dating back to Feb. 25, 2016, WKU has now won 21 straight home conference games. The Lady Toppers have eclipsed the program’s the previous record of 19 consecutive games, which was established in the Sun Belt during the early 1990s.
The record is one aspect of the Lady Toppers’ broader dominance since joining C-USA for the 2014-15 season. The program has not lost a home conference game during either of the last two seasons. Through two conference games, WKU has improved to 35-2 against C-USA opponents inside Diddle Arena and 61-11 against C-USA overall.
WKU’s next test will come against Marshall (8-7, 2-0 C-USA) on Jan. 12. The Thundering Herd has faced the same two C-USA opponents as the Lady Toppers, defeating ODU 57-48 on Jan. 3 and Charlotte 63-62 on Jan. 5.
Marshall is 8-2 in home games this season. The Thundering Herd are still looking for their first win away from the Cam Henderson Center, posting an 0-5 mark in away games so far this year.
The Lady Toppers will attempt to duplicate the formula they employed to defeat both ODU and Charlotte. WKU did not allow either team to shoot 40 percent from the field or 25 percent from beyond the arc. On the other end, the Lady Toppers shot 51 percent from the floor in both games and at least 40 percent from deep.
Redshirt junior guard Alexis Brewer could potentially return to the lineup for WKU after missing the last two games with a lingering shoulder injury on her shooting arm.
Brewer, who has made 12 starts for the Lady Toppers, averages 29.3 minutes and ranks third on the team with 11.8 points per game. Brewer did not dress against the 49ers and did not play after participating in warmups prior to the ODU game.
“I challenged Alexis actually before we got to the point where she had to sit out,” Collins said. “I said, ‘Worst case scenario…where you miss a game or a couple games, I need you to still be the best leader that you can be’… Lex took that role on and it helps build confidence in younger players, it helps our team be stronger together and I expect that when she gets back and feels better, that we’ll be even better than we were before.”
WKU will seek to halt Marshall’s three-game win streak and take a 11-1 series lead in the hardwood version of the Moonshine Throwdown Saturday at 2 p.m. in Diddle Arena.
Women’s basketball reporter Drake Kizer can be reached at 270-745-2653 and [email protected] Follow Drake on Twitter at @drakekizer_.