Lady Toppers lose in final seconds to first-place MTSU

Senior forward LaTeira Owens attempts a lay up against MTSU Wednesday. WKU lost 67-64.

Brad Stephens

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — The Lady Toppers promised all week they wouldn’t roll over against Middle Tennessee State on Wednesday in the Murphy Center.

WKU made good on that promise, giving the Sun Belt Conference’s first-place team all it could handle before falling 67-64 in the final seconds.

WKU (6-17, 3-8 Sun Belt) came back from a late 59-50 deficit to take a 62-61 lead with just 55 seconds to play.

But the Lady Raiders (20-5, 12-0) hit six free throws in the last minute to retake control of the game.

MTSU finally clinched the win when freshman guard Danay Fothergill’s 25-foot 3-point attempt rimmed out at the buzzer.

Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles after the game said she was glad to see her Lady Toppers put themselves in a position to win at the end by “finally putting two halves together.”

WKU had struggled during its now five-game losing streak at fading away in the second half.

But the Lady Toppers, who trailed 32-27 at halftime, outscored the Lady Raiders 37-35 in the game’s final 20 minutes.

“We didn’t close it the way we would like to with a ‘W’ obviously,” Cowles said. “But we were in this game from start to finish.”

It was the closest any Sun Belt team had come all season to beating MTSU, which is now 59-1 all-time in the Murphy Center against league competition under Head Coach Rick Insell.

“Give them credit,” Insell said of the Lady Toppers. “They did a good job, they changed their defenses, they really played harder than us.

“…I guess we thought we were going to come in and Western was just going to mail it in… In this league it’s every night, you’re going to have to fight, you’re going to have to battle.”

It appeared that battle was won when Lady Raider guard Laken Leonard hit a corner 3-pointer with 5:35 left to put her team out front with its biggest lead of the night, 59-50.

Freshman forward Chastity Gooch answered with a jumper to pull WKU back within seven.

Then after the under-four minutes media timeout the Lady Toppers cut the lead to 59-56 with two free throws from freshman guard Alexis Govan and a jumper from senior forward LaTeira Owens.

Forward Icelyn Elie pushed the lead back to five with a made jumper.

An Owens layup and a free throw by senior center Jasmine Johnson with 1:41 to play cut the lead to 61-59.

WKU finally grabbed the lead on its next possession due to a hustle play from Owens.

After missing a put-back attempt and seeing MTSU forward Ebony Rowe grab the defensive rebound, Owens dove to the gowned and wrestled the ball away from Rowe.

The ball ended up in the hands of senior forward Teranie Thomas, who found sophomore guard Chaney Means for a go-ahead 3-pointer.

“It was extremely fun,” freshman guard Alexis Govan said of the back-and-forth action. “Before the game Coach was looking at the starting five and talking about how big this game was. She looked at me and said, ‘You don’t know anything about this yet,’ and I think I learned really quick how big this rivalry is.”

Trailing for the first time since the 3:13 mark of the first half, the Lady Raiders got the ball in the post to Rowe.

The former Lexington Dunbar High School standout went up and was fouled by Owens, then knocked down both free throws to give MTSU a 63-62 lead.

Owens, who scored a team-high 18 points on Wednesday, missed a hook shot on WKU’s next possession that would’ve given the Lady Toppers the lead.

Elie knocked down the first of two free throws on MTSU’s trip to give the Lady Raiders a 64-62 lead.

She missed the second, but Leonard grabbed the offensive rebound and was subsequently fouled.

She hit both foul shots to give MTSU a four-point advantage.

Two Owens free throws with five seconds left cut the deficit back to 66-64.

After Lady Raider guard Shanice Cason hit the second of two free throws with four seconds left, Cowles called a timeout and put Fothergill, a 3-point specialist, back in the game.

The Somerset native got an open running look but saw the shot go in-and-out to end the tense game.

“I’m extremely proud of our young ladies because I felt like they laid it out there,” Cowles said.

Owens’ 18 led the Lady Toppers, while Means added 12 points and Govan scored 11.

Guard Kortni Jones was the big gun for MTSU, scoring 23, and hitting 6-of-12 from behind the arc.

Jones, who broke the school’s single-season 3-point record in the first half (she has  90 for the season) said she was “very, very surprised” WKU allowed her open looks.

“That’s the first time this year I think I’ve shot any wide open 3’s,” she said. “I remember one of them, I was running down and I was like ‘They don’t see me, they don’t see me,’ so I sprinted all the way to the other side and shot one in the corner late in the game.

“That was probably the most open I’ve been all year.”

Elie poured in 20 for MTSU, while Rowe, who came into Wednesday averaging 17.1 a contest, scored just five.

Cowles said the perimeter defense on Jones was “frustrating” but said she wouldn’t focus only on that when evaluating her team’s efforts.

“I’m not going to let that frustration take away from the fact that we showed up with a lot of pride for the three letters that were on the front of our uniform,” Cowles said.

Additional notes:

—WKU has now lost eight straight to MTSU.

—The Lady Toppers out-rebounded the Lady Raiders 44-35 on Wednesday after being out-rebounded 37-30 on Saturday by South Alabama in a 56-52 home loss.

—Announced attendance at the Murphy Center was 4,012.