Sun Belt leader MTSU awaits 6-16 Lady Toppers

Sophomore Chaney Means fouls late in the second half against South Alabama Saturday at Diddle arena. WKU lost to USA 56-52.

Brad Stephens

Middle Tennessee State isn’t the type of squad struggling teams like WKU typically look forward to facing.

The Lady Raiders (19-5, 10-0 Sun Belt Conference) have made easy work of the Sun Belt this year, winning their league games by an average of 15.9 points per contest.

MTSU is 100-12 in regular season league play under Head Coach Rick Insell, and has beaten the Lady Toppers in seven straight meetings.

Though WKU (6-16, 3-7) comes into its meeting against the Lady Raiders at 7 p.m. on Wednesday in the Murphy Center losers of four straight games, sophomore guard Chaney Means said no one on her team will be waving a white towel at MTSU.

“I think it’s important for us to play with a chip on our shoulder,” Means said Tuesday. “It’s been a frustrating few games, and we need to go out there with nothing to lose, but everything to gain.”

Insell has used short rotations throughout his seven-year tenure with the Lady Raiders, and the 2011-2012 squad is no exception.

MTSU’s regular five starters average between 28 and 35.9 minutes a game. The next highest total beings to center KeKe Stewart, who averages 13 a contest.

Insell’s reliance on a core group of players is stark contrast to Lady Topper Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles, whose WKU squad features 11 players averaging double-digit minutes per game.

But the Lady Raiders that do step onto the court every night make up one of the most well-rounded starting fives in the Sun Belt.

MTSU’s leader is Ebony Rowe, a former Lexington Dunbar High School standout named Sun Belt Preseason Co-Player of the Year before the 2011-2012 season.

Rowe hasn’t disappointed, averaging 17.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.6 steals and 1.0 block per game, leading the Lady Raiders in all four categories.

The scope of Rowe’s impact has come as a surprise to WKU senior center Jasmine Johnson, who watched Rowe when she was at Dunbar.

“I didn’t think she was going to be what she is today,” Johnson said. “We saw her when she used to play here, and I thought she was good, but I didn’t think she was that good. She’s very impressive.”

When not dealing with Rowe in the post, the Lady Toppers must find a way to limit Lady Raider guard Kortni Jones on the perimeter.

The junior from Oak Ridge, Tenn., is second on the team in scoring behind Rowe, averaging 16.0 points per game.

Jones leads the league with 84 made 3-pointers. Her next closest competition within the conference is South Alabama guard Sarda Peterson, who’s hit 52 treys.

Her 5.0 assists per game rank third in the Sun Belt, and her 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks second.

“(Jones) has proven to be a scorer and an offensive threat for them,” Cowles said. “She’s got some experience and it shows.”

Insell will also likely start guard Shanice Cason (7.8 ppg, 2.3 spg), forward Icelyn Elie (13.5 ppg, 9.5 rig) and guard Laken Leonard (4.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg).

“There’s nobody that you can really play off of or take it easy with,” Cowles said.

As for the Lady Toppers themselves, Cowles said freshman guard Alexis Govan will be in the starting lineup on Wednesday for the second straight game.

Govan started for the first time since Dec. 7 on Saturday in a 56-52 loss to South Alabama, notching eight points, three rebounds, three assists and five turnovers.

Cowles said Govan will remain in a starting lineup which also includes sophomore guard Ellen Sholtes, senior guard Vanessa Obafemi, senior forward LaTeira Owens and Johnson.

The team has re-emphasized rebounding throughout this week’s practices, according to Cowles.

WKU, second in the Sun Belt only to North Texas with a +6.5 rebounding margin, was out-rebounded 37-30 by the Lady Jags on Saturday.

The 23-11 second-half rebounding deficit was especially disastrous for the Lady Toppers, helping to allow South Alabama to make a second half comeback.

“Boxing out’s a big key and after a disappointing effort we had on Saturday against South Al, that’s even a stronger emphasis this week in practice,” Cowles said.