Lady Toppers beat Southern Miss, win 13th straight home conference game

WKU senior forward Tashia Brown (10) wrestles for the ball with an opposing player during their game against Notre Dame on Tuesday Nov 14, 2017 in EA Diddle Arena. The Lady Toppers lost 78-65.

Tyler Mansfield

The WKU women’s basketball used a strong defensive intensity for a second straight game and a dominant fourth quarter to record an 81-60 win over Southern Mississippi on Saturday afternoon at E.A. Diddle Arena.

The Lady Toppers (11-4 overall, 2-0 Conference USA), after forcing Middle Tennessee to commit 18 turnovers in Thursday’s conference opener, forced Southern Miss into 22 turnovers on Saturday and turned those takeaways into 26 points on the opposite end of the court.

“I did,” WKU coach Michelle Clark-Heard said when asked if she noticed some of the same characteristics defensively from the MTSU game against Southern Miss. “I think that’s the understanding that you have when you go from playing on Thursday and having a quick turnaround. I’m really proud of how we continued to battle and stepped up to the things I challenged the team to do.”

WKU trailed 21-16 after the opening quarter but outscored Southern Miss (8-7, 0-2) 17-7 in the second quarter to lead 33-28 at halftime. After leading by just five at the end of three quarters, the Lady Toppers outscored the Golden Eagles 26-10 in the fourth to win their 13th consecutive home conference game.

Ivy Brown led WKU with 23 points and eight rebounds, while Tashia Brown scored 22 points and pulled down five boards. Additionally, Dee Givens finished with 12 points and Raneem Elgedawy added eight with four rebounds.

“Just to play in front of our fans – we didn’t have a lot of those (opportunities) in the non-conference,” Ivy Brown said. “So, to get the chance to play in front of ‘em in conference is really big. It’s just a lot more fun to play in front of a lot of people than an empty gym, so we don’t take that for granted.”

Southern Miss jumped out to a 5-2 start, but WKU quickly scored four straight to take a 6-5 lead at the 7:19 mark of the first quarter. The Lady Toppers later went up 12-9 before the Golden Eagles used a quick 10-0 run to take a 19-12 lead with 2:53 remaining in the opening period.

WKU responded with a couple of buckets from Tashia Brown, but it still trailed 21-16 after 10 minutes of action as Southern Miss was shooting 69 percent from the field compared to the Lady Toppers’ 35 percent mark.

Ivy Brown’s three pointer at the 8:10 mark of the second – the Lady Toppers’ first of the afternoon – cut WKU’s deficit to 22-19. A jumper by Tashia with 4:57 left in the quarter ended a three-minute scoring drought for the Lady Toppers and made it 24-21 in Southern Miss’ favor.

“(Joye-Lee McNelis) does an amazing job,” Clark-Heard said of Southern Miss. “She gets those players to play at a high level and they just compete. It’s always fun to play against them because you know they’re gonna play really hard, they’re gonna be prepared and it’s always a really good game.”

A three from the left corner by Terri Smith off an assist by Whitney Creech evened the scoreboard at 24-24 with just over three minutes remaining in the first half. Soon after, Creech knocked down a three and Ivy made a pair of free throws to put WKU back in front at 31-26.

The Lady Toppers took a 33-28 advantage into the locker room at halftime thanks to the 9-2 run it put together to close the second period. At the break, Ivy had 13 points and six rebounds while Tashia was up to eight points and four rebounds.

“We challenged them at halftime about our defense,” Clark-Heard said. “That’s something we really wanna start hanging our hat on. From the last game we did really, really well and we just wanted to make sure that we were doing the same thing. We just talked about our energy and picking it up. I think that helped a lot.”

WKU built a 38-30 lead early into the third quarter after Tashia converted an and-one off a pull-up jumper – but just before Southern Miss scored four straight to cut the Lady Toppers’ advantage in half to four.

A pair of free throws by Ivy put WKU up three at 44-41 at the 6:03 mark but a basket by Megan Brown off an offensive rebound gave the Golden Eagles a 45-44 lead. The game continued to remain tight after three quarters, as the Lady Toppers were up 55-50 entering the fourth.

It was in the final period that the Lady Toppers were able to pull away.

“I just think we came out with a little bit more intensity defensively and we were knocking down some shots, so I think that’s what helped us pull away,” Creech said. “It’s great to start off the conference 2-0. Our game plan is to try and win every game in the conference.”

Givens’ three and a score inside by Elgedawy gave WKU a 60-52 lead with 8:09 remaining. Another deep ball – this one from Ivy – increased the Lady Toppers’ advantage to double digits at 63-52 with 7:08 to play and pushed their run to 8-0.

WKU later built a 70-56 advantage and used that comfortable margin to earn another league victory. The Lady Toppers return to action Thursday at 7 p.m. against Florida International on John Oldham Court.

“When you’re on a break and you’re out of school and you start to be around your teammates a little bit more off the floor, I feel like that’s one thing we’ve always done here is really have great chemistry,” said Clark-Heard. “I think we’re starting to gel more. Everyone is starting to come along – and it’s fun to watch.”

Reporter Tyler Mansfield can be reached at 270-935-0007 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @_TylerMansfield.