Lady Toppers pull away in final minutes to beat FAU

Senior center Jasmine Johnson dives for a loose ball Wednesday against Florida Atlantic at Diddle Arena. WKU won 71-60.

Brad Stephens

60-60, 4:32 left in the game.

WKU had found itself in those kinds of tense, late-game situations plenty this year, and had come out on the losing end more often than not.

But on Wednesday against Florida Atlantic, those final minutes belonged to the Lady Toppers.

WKU outscored the Owls 11-0 in the final 4:32, calmly pulling out a 71-60 win in front of 894 fans at Diddle Arena.

It was a change of pace for a Lady Topper team which has twice blown 15-point second half leads in Sun Belt Conference games this year, and lost a 60-58 heartbreaker to the same FAU squad on Jan. 25.

Senior guard Vanessa Obafemi said WKU (8-17, 5-8 Sun Belt) came through late on Wednesday by simply sticking to fundamentals, whether on the boards, at the free throw stripe, or on the defensive end.

“I think the difference in this game is we got some big rebounds, we knocked down free throws when we were fouled, and we stuck together as a team and made some big shots,” Obafemi said.

The Lady Toppers took a 62-60 lead on a layup from senior center Jasmine Johnson off sophomore guard Chaney Means’ inbounds assist with 4:12 left.

After an FAU (14-10, 9-4) turnover, sophomore guard Ellen Sholtes forced her way to the basket and drew a foul.

The former Louisville Mercy Academy standout hit both free throws to put the Lady Toppers up four.

WKU got another stop, which was followed by Means finding Johnson on a pick-and-roll for an uncontested layup, pushing WKU’s lead to 66-60.

Senior forward LaTeira Owens and Means combined to knock down five free throws between the 1:17 and :50 marks to make the final advantage 71-60.

Cowles said she was glad to see the Lady Toppers’ late game push happen at the time of year when she’d like to see her team peaking.

In the game’s final 6:59, WKU out-rebounded FAU 11-5, hit 7-of-9 free throws and had just one turnover.

“It’s good, especially on Feb. 15, this time of the season,” Cowles said. “That’s obviously the direction we want to be heading as far as getting better to make big plays and get defensive rebounds and knock down some free throws and simply take care of the basketball.”

It was Obafemi who got off to a hot start on Wednesday.

She hit two three-pointers in the game’s first 40 seconds to give WKU an early 6-0 lead and prompt a timeout from Florida Atlantic Head Coach Chancellor Dugan.

“When I see my shot going in for me, it’s always good as a shooter,” said Obafemi, who finished with a game-high 18 points. “That carried me for the whole game. I was confident with my shot.”

After an Owls basket, Obafemi found herself open again and buried another trey to make the Lady Topper lead 9-2.

Sholtes said the Lady Toppers’ game plan coming out of the locker room was to get the ball to Obafemi every chance they could.

“On the tip, the play was either to go to LaTeira on the layup or Vanessa on the wing and Vanessa was open,” Sholtes said. “Get her the ball.”

But while Obafemi was taking care of business offensively, WKU was largely unable to get stops on the other end.

The Owls launched a 10-0 run between the 13:28 and 11:05 marks to turn a 17-11 Lady Topper lead into a 21-17 WKU deficit.

FAU was led in the first half by guard Kimberly Smith (nine points) and forward Chenise Miller (eight points).

The Owls scored 37 points on 51.6 percent in the game’s first 20 minutes, the highest-scoring output WKU had allowed all season.

But the Lady Toppers kept pace, scoring 38 points and taking a one-point lead into the break.

“I thought we were two or three steps behind defensively in the first half,” Cowles said, “but still were able to do some good things offensively, go in at halftime with a one point lead and really talk about some lapses on the defensive end.

The WKU defense came out with a renewed toughness in the second half, holding FAU to 23 points in the game’s final 20 minutes.

Means, Obafemi and Sholtes made life tough for the Owl guards, combining for eight steals.

Meanwhile Johnson, who finished with a game-high three blocks, helped hold the FAU post in check.

Miller and fellow forward April Goins, who combined for 29 points in the team’s first meeting, scored 17 total on Wednesday.

“I thought Jasmine Johnson’s length was very effective,” Cowles said of her 6-foot-3 center. “I thought she played smart with it.

“She wasn’t fouling or reaching and trying to block shots, and that’s a compliment to Jasmine, and understanding what her length and her size can do for her… Their post game is good, and I challenged our post because watching them on film against North Texas, against Denver, against Florida International, all these games of late they are absolutely rocking in the post. I knew that was going to be an approach they tried to take advantage of and I’m proud of our young ladies.”

Johnson finished with eight points and six rebounds in 29 minutes of play.

Joining Obafemi as double-digit scorers on Wednesday were Owens with 12 and freshman forward Chastity Gooch with 10.

Owens also recorded a game-high nine rebounds. Meanwhile freshman guard Alexis Govan led all players with five assists.

WKU will travel to Mobile, Ala., this weekend for its final regular season road game, a rematch with East Division rival South Alabama at 5 p.m. on Saturday.

The Lady Jaguars dealt the Lady Toppers a 56-52 loss in Diddle on Feb. 4.

Following the South Alabama game, WKU will come back home to finish the regular season against Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee State.

Cowles said she likes where her team’s “confidence is right now” and said she hoped it would carry through the rest of the year.

“Hopefully we can pack it up and get out of here Friday and get down there,” Cowles said, “and just take it one possession at a time and try to put ourselves in the best position to win a ballgame.”