Defense leads WKU to win over Middle Tennessee in C-USA opener

WKU senior forward Tashia Brown (10) drives in for a layup during WKU’s game vs Notre Dame on Nov 14, 2017 in E.A. Diddle Arena. WKU lost 65-78.

Tyler Mansfield

WKU used its defense to overcome a sluggish game against longtime rival Middle Tennessee, defeating the Blue Raiders 57-43 on Thursday to open Conference USA play with a win.

The Lady Toppers (10-4 overall, 1-0 C-USA) forced 18 MTSU turnovers and turned those takeaways into 18 points on the opposite end of the court. Additionally, the WKU defense held the Blue Raiders (8-6, 0-1) to 33 percent shooting from the field (13-of-40) on the night.

“We couldn’t throw a ball in the ocean if the ocean was sitting there,” WKU coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “But you know what? That’s okay. I’ve been on this team so much about defense, and man, the way we played tonight – just our pressure, our helping, just everything. It was great team basketball.”

WKU’s victory marked its fourth straight over MTSU and gave it its first four-game winning streak over MTSU since March 1, 2003 to Feb. 26, 2004. The win was also the Lady Toppers’ fifth in the last six meetings in the rivalry.

WKU shot just 20-of-59 from the floor, but Tashia Brown led WKU with 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists, while Ivy Brown finished with 10 points and 11 boards. Sidnee Bopp added 10 points, helping WKU improve to 4-0 in league openers since joining C-USA prior to the 2014-15 season.

“Pretty much all week we just tried to take pride in just guarding, and that’s what our main focus has been lately,” Tashia Brown said. “I think we finally went out and just executed everything out on the floor and just executed our game plan, got some stops and came up pretty successful.”

WKU jumped out to a 5-0 start to open the game, courtesy of a 3-pointer by Bopp and a Whitney Creech jumper. MTSU earned its first points on an and-one by Abbey Sissom, but the Lady Toppers used another quick 5-0 run to take a 10-3 lead at the 4:34 mark of the first quarter.

Another 3-pointer by Bopp gave WKU its first double-digit advantage of the game at 13-3. Behind her hot shooting and an all-around defensive intensity in the period, the Lady Toppers led 15-7 after one.

As Bopp was leading WKU with six points, Ivy Brown was already up to five points and six rebounds. WKU forced five MTSU turnovers in the opening quarter and out-rebounded the Blue Raiders 14-5.

“Everyone stepped up. Everybody did their jobs,” Bopp said. “The guards pressured so they could get the ball to the post, which really helped our post. Everybody was in help side and it’s just a team win.”

Middle Tennessee scored the first four points of the second and cut WKU’s lead to 15-11 at the 4:44 mark. The Lady Toppers – after not scoring a single point since the 3:12 mark of the first – finally ended their long scoring drought with 3:19 remaining in the period on a jumper by Porter from the right corner.

After being held scoreless in the first quarter, Tashia Brown scored six straight points to put WKU back up by 10 at 23-13 with just over a minute left in the half. A basket by Raneem Elgedawy helped the Lady Toppers knock down each of their last five shots of the quarter and gave them a 25-14 lead at halftime.

“With Tashia, we handled some adversity, because she goes out in foul trouble in the first half for the first time all year,” Clark-Heard said. “We still kept the pace and everyone kept playing. I think’s that’s a sign of a team that’s growing – and it was really great to see in this game against Middle Tennessee.”

WKU shot 10-of-32 (31 percent) from the field over the course of the first two quarters compared to MTSU’s 15 percent mark. Defensively, the Lady Toppers forced 12 turnovers and scored 16 points off those.

Tashia Brown and Bopp each had six points for WKU at the break while Ivy Brown had five points, six rebounds and two assists. Seven different Lady Toppers scored at least two points in the first half while only four Blue Raiders found the net.

“It gave us a chance to be able to go down the floor and do our offense,” Bopp said of WKU’s defense. “We weren’t hitting shots very well tonight, but we were still able to pull away and come out with a win. Our defense definitely impacted our offense.”

WKU quickly built a 15-point lead of 29-15 just over two minutes into the third quarter with the help of an Elgedawy basket and a layup by Bopp on a drive down the left side of the lane. However, MTSU responded with four straight points to cut the Lady Toppers’ lead down to 10 at the 5:49 mark.

Two free throws by Porter put WKU back up 15 at 34-19 before the Lady Toppers ultimately took a 37-25 lead into the final quarter.

WKU continued to play strong defense in the fourth quarter and because of it – and a 3-pointer by Dee Givens with under two minutes left – recorded a big win over its rival to start conference play off on the right foot.

“I like it,” Tashia Brown said of opening conference play against WKU’s biggest rival. “It just gives us a chance to make a statement of who we are and what our program is about. It was a great team win here at our home floor.”

The Lady Toppers return to action Saturday at 2 p.m. against Southern Mississippi in Diddle Arena.

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