Chance at improbable run awaits WKU in Hot Springs

Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles talks to her team during a timeout Wednesday. The WKU women’s basketball team lost Wednesday night to Arkansas State 53-56. Feburary 22, 2012.

Brad Stephens

WKU doesn’t have to look back far to find some inspiration for this weekend’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

Just one year ago the Lady Toppers went to Hot Springs, Ark., with a losing record but rallied and made it all the way to the title game before losing to Arkansas-Little Rock.

This year WKU heads to Hot Springs on the heels of one of the program’s worst-ever seasons.

The Lady Toppers went 8-20 overall, notching the team’s first-ever 20-loss season.

WKU also went 5-11 in Sun Belt Conference play to finish fifth in the East Division, the team’s lowest all-time finish in final league standings.

Yet for senior guard Vanessa Obafemi, the disappointing regular season will be ancient history when the Lady Toppers take to Convention Center Court at 12:15 p.m. on Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe in their first-round game.

“Right now we’re just having a new mindset and a new mentality,” Obafemi said. “It’s really a new season. You have your preseason and conference year and now you’re in postseason.”

WKU’s first-round tilt with the Warhawks will give the Lady Toppers a chance to avenge for one of those league losses, a 53-49 defeat on Dec. 29 in ULM’s Fant-Ewing Coliseum.

In that game WKU held a 45-30 lead late in the second half before the Warhawks went on a 23-4 run to steal the victory.

On that night the Lady Toppers committed 25 turnovers compared with just three assists.

Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles said focus for the entire game will be key to avoiding a similar result this weekend.

“The biggest glaring factor is that Monroe was very much determined to play 40 minutes and I felt like we were the ones that kind of stopped playing and got maybe a little too comfortable,” Cowles said. “We’ve got to understand it’s a 40 minute basketball game on Saturday.”

ULM (9-20, 7-9) got somewhat of a spark from its win in December over WKU.

The Warhawks had just two wins before the comeback over the Lady Toppers, but won six games over the next month and a half before finishing the year on a three-game losing streak.

During the course of the year, ULM notched wins over Arkansas State, Arkansas Little-Rock, South Alabama and North Texas. Those four teams combined to go 5-0 against WKU this season.

The Warhawks are led by guard Elizabeth Torres, who averages 9.8 points and 5.0 assists per game, and center Larrie Williams, who scores a team-high 14.8 ppg.

“I think they’re very aggressive putting the ball on the floor,” Cowles said. “They’re led by their point guard, Torres, I think she just does a really, really good job of being aggressive and savvy with the basketball, whether it’s her passing, whether it’s her penetration, whether it’s her shooting. But then again I think you’ve got to recognize the force inside with Williams. I just think she’s done a good job with her length and her size.”

WKU goes into the Sun Belt Tournament on the heels of a three-game losing streak to end the regular season, capped off on Sunday in a 77-62 Senior Day loss to Middle Tennessee State.

The score could’ve been far more lopsided were it not for the performances of freshman guard Alexis Govan (career-high 22 points) and freshman forward Chastity Gooch (12 points).

“I think that will definitely benefit our basketball team as we head to Hot Springs this weekend with the two of them hopefully hitting a little stride and understanding more and more what their role is and what their abilities are,” Cowles said. “I think that couldn’t have come at a better time for us, especially for those two young ladies.”

But those two players, as well as much of the rest of the squad, were in high school one year ago when WKU made its run to the 2011 Sun Belt Championship Game.

Cowles said she wants her upperclassmen that were a part of that run to lead by example in preparation for this year’s tournament.

“It’s not just going to happen because we were fortunate to have it happen last year,” Cowles said. “We had some players step up last year and make some big time plays and that’s what it’s going to take this year for anything like that to happen again.Should WKU get past ULM, it will have a Sunday date with East Division No. 1 seed MTSU.

The rival Lady Raiders beat the Lady Toppers twice this season.

Still Obafemi said WKU won’t be looking past the Warhawks.

“The coaches, they try to get us focused on that one game against Monroe first,” she said. “I think we all know that Middle is next. First, we have to take care of Monroe.”