Lady Toppers end regular season with 15-point loss to MTSU

Sophomore guard Chaney Means wipes her face as Middle Tennessee State fans cheer after WKU’s 77-62 loss to MTSU on Sunday at Diddle Arena.

Brad Stephens

WKU’s 67-64 loss to Middle Tennessee State on Feb. 8 in Murfreesboro, Tenn., featured six ties and 10 lead changes before being decided in the final minute.

There was no such drama in the rematch on Sunday.

MTSU capped off a perfect Sun Belt Conference season with a 77-62 thumping of WKU in front of 1,234 fans at Diddle Arena, many of which were wearing MTSU blue.

The Lady Raiders (24-5, 16-0 Sun Belt) built a first-half lead of 45-22 and never let the Lady Toppers (8-20, 5-11) get closer than 10 points the rest of the way.

The loss was WKU’s ninth straight to MTSU, and clinched WKU’s first-ever 20 loss season.

“Our shoot-around was just so focused, and everyone was so excited, we knew we had this game won before we stepped on the court,” Lady Raider forward Ebony Rowe said.

Rowe, who came into the game averaging 16.4 points per game, was held to five points in the team’s first meeting.

But the former Lexington Dunbar High School standout, playing in front of much of her family, went for 27 points and 10 rebounds.

“You just knew a good player wasn’t going to lay down,” Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles said of Rowe. “…She works extremely hard. 

“I think that’s the one thing you have to respect most about her individual game is just simply how hard she works for the basketball, how hard she goes back to the offensive boards. She’s just very, very good at out-working whoever she’s matched up against.”

For much of the first half, Rowe wasn’t matched up with senior forward LaTeira Owens.

WKU’s leading scorer played just 17 minutes on her Senior Day, heading to the bench at the 9:07 mark of the first half after picking up her second foul.

Owens played just one minute the rest of the half, while MTSU stretched their lead form 21-12 to 45-26 at the half.

MTSU Head Coach Rick Insell called Owens’ second foul “the big difference of the game.”

“They had to take her out,” Insell said of Owens. “And then we they had to take her out that kind of messed their chemistry up a little bit. I think she’s their senior leader, their heart and soul, so I think when Mary Taylor took her out that’s when we opened it up.”

The Lady Toppers threatened to make it a game in the early minutes of the second half.

WKU opened the half on a 10-0 run, cutting the Lady Raiders’ lead from 47-26 to 47-36 with 16:39 left.

But consecutive layups from forward Icelyn Elie and a lay-in by Rowe stretched MTSU’s lead to 17.

The Lady Toppers didn’t go away though, keeping the game respectable thanks to a career night from freshman guard Alexis Govan.

The San Antonio native scored 22 points, doubling her previous career high. Twelve of those points came in the second half.

“I was just trying to fight for the seniors,” Govan said of her performance. “Everybody before the game was saying that you don’t do it for yourself. Do it for the seniors. That’s all I kept thinking.”

One of those seniors, guard Vanessa Obafemi, hit the team’s lone 3-pointer of the day with 9:43 left to cut the lead to 17.

That spurred a 12-2 WKU run to cut MTSU’s lead to 65-55 with 7:15 to play.

But the Lady Toppers didn’t get any closer the rest of the day.

WKU actually outscored MTSU in the second half, 36-32. But by then, the Lady Toppers were too far out of reach to contend for the win.

“We just didn’t put two halves together,” Cowles said. “It was a great effort in the second half. I think it said a lot about our team.

“We could have responded a totally different way at halftime…but to beat a team like this, you have to put a complete game together.”

There’s a chance the Lady Toppers and Lady Raiders could meet again, in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Tournament on Sunday at Summit Arena in Hot Springs, Ark.

To get there WKU will have to get past Louisiana-Monroe in the first round at 12:15 p.m. on Saturday at the Convention Center Court.

Cowles said her team is ready to put the regular season behind them and focus on the postseason.

“We’re looking forward, and we’re going to Hot Springs like everyone else for our third season with a 0-0 record,” Cowles said. “We know who we’re going to play in the first game, and that’s what we’ve got to concentrate on.”