Lady Toppers’ season ends with loss to MTSU

Freshman guard Alexis Govan looks for an open pass during the second round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. The Lady Toppers lost to MTSU 65-57.

Brad Stephens

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — WKU can close the book on one of the worst seasons in school history thanks to its biggest rival.

Middle Tennessee State handed the Lady Toppers a 65-57 season-ending loss on Sunday at the Sun Belt Conference Tournament quarterfinals in Summit Arena.

East Division No. 1 seed MTSU took control early with a 15-3 lead seven minutes into the game and opened up that lead to as much as 18 in the second half.

The Lady Toppers tried to fight their way back into the game behind freshman guard Danay Fothergill, who scored 18 points on 6-of-12 3-point shooting.

But the Lady Raiders had an answer for every run and held on to send WKU back to Bowling Green.

The loss marked the 21st of the year for the East Division No. 5 seed Lady Toppers, the most in school history.

For center Jasmine Johnson and the team’s other four seniors, the loss also marked their final game in a WKU uniform.

“It’s been a rollercoaster my whole four years here, I just wish it would’ve finished better,” Johnson said. “We came out so strong in the second half willing to win and I wish we would’ve had that in the first half.

“I know we wanted to win so bad but I wish all five girls on the court and everybody on the bench would’ve came ready to play today.”

Turnovers were once again the Achilles’ heel for the Lady Toppers on Sunday.

WKU, which came into the game averaging 20.8 turnovers a contest, turned the ball over 27 times against MTSU.

The Lady Raiders converted those 27 turnovers into 25 points. Comparatively, the Lady Toppers finished with 10 points off turnovers.

MTSU used a full-court press, of which Lady Raider Head Coach Rick Insell said there were 14 variations, that gave WKU trouble getting across half-court.

When the Lady Toppers did cross the mid-court line, they often did so with one-third to half of the shot clock expired, giving them less time to run an offense.

“Their press is what really disturbs you because when you turn the ball over 27 times then that kind of puts you in a little bit of a panic,” Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles said. “…When their press baits you into the turnovers that we committed, you get a little bit panicky because they’re scoring easy baskets that we don’t really have a defense designed for that kind of turnover.”  

It was a turnover by senior forward Keshia Mosley with 13:09 left in the first half that led to a 3 from guard Kortni Jones second later, putting MTSU up 15-3.

The Lady Raider lead floated between 10 and 17 points the rest of the first half, and MTSU went into the locker room up 35-22.

Guards Jones (13 points), Shanice Cason (8 points) and Laken Leonard (6 points) combined for much of the Lady Raider offense in the game’s first 20 minutes.

The guards shined as the WKU defense collapsed down on forward Ebony Rowe, who scored 27 points in the teams’ last meeting on Feb. 26.

“We saw a lot of double-teams, but that’s nothing new for us,” Rowe said. “…I told my guards, ‘Look they’re going to pack it in on me, this is your all’s night, you’re going to have to knock down shots.’ And that’s exactly what they did.”

The Lady Toppers threatened to make things interesting in the second half thanks to Fothergill’s shooting.

The former Pulaski Southwestern High School standout had been quiet in recent weeks, scoring in double-figures just once since Nov. 22.

But Fothergill got hot in the second half and her teammates kept getting her the ball. She was 5-of-9 from the perimeter in the second half, accounting for 15 points.

“I think our entire staff would tell you that if we were going to war and we had to pick one young lady it would be Danay Fothergill because she’s a fighter,” Cowles said. “She knows how to battle. She has a will to win that’s unmatched by anybody on our basketball team.”

Fothergill hit back-to-back 3s to turn an 18-point MTSU lead into a 42-30 game with 14:49 left.

Then after the Lady Raiders had ran their lead back to 17 points, a Fothergill 3-pointer at the 5:51 mark capped off a 7-0 run and made the Lady Toppers’ deficit 53-43.

“She just got hot,” Insell said of Fothergill. “We missed her on some rebounds and some box-outs and she just knocked them down.”

Momentum was fully in WKU’s favor when freshman guard Alexis Govan hit a layup with 3:12 left, making the score 55-48.

But 11 seconds later Jones put MTSU back up by double-digits with the last of her three 3-pointers. The first-team All-Sun Belt performer finished with a game-high 25 points.

Rowe added 12 points and nine rebounds for the Lady Raiders.

Johnson was WKU’s second-highest scorer, getting a season-high 12 points to go along with 10 rebounds. Govan added 10 points and eight rebounds before fouling out.

The loss on Sunday marked the Lady Toppers’ 10th straight to their rivals 90 miles to the southeast.

It also marked the end of what could be the last of Cowles’ 10 seasons as WKU head coach.

WKU hasn’t made an NCAA Tournament since the 2007-2008 season and has finished with losing records in two straight years.

Still Cowles said her job status isn’t her decision to make.

“My passion is to coach basketball,” Cowles said. “So if that’s their decision, then we’ll move forward.”

Athletics Director Ross Bjork declined to comment on the situation after the game. He referenced comments he made on Feb. 26 that the program would be evaluated after the season.