WKU had no answer for Jerica Coley Saturday night.
The Florida International guard tied a career high with 36 points, carrying the Panthers to a 60-56 win over the Lady Toppers at U.S. Century Bank Arena in Miami.
Coley scored 29 of her points in the second half, helping FIU (14-7, 4-4 Sun Belt Conference) overcome what was at one point a 36-21 WKU (6-15, 3-6) lead.
She saved her most important points for the end, hitting a step-back three-pointer with 2:48 left to break a 49-49 tie and give the Panthers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“She really stepped up her game in the second half,” senior guard Vanessa Obafemi said. “You could tell she was determined to get to the basket and score and do whatever she had to do for her team to win.”
The Lady Toppers were already familiar with Coley’s scoring ability.
The sophomore from St. Petersburg, Fla., came into Saturday the nation’s second-leading scorer, averaging 24.3 points per game.
She also had one of her best performances of the year against the same WKU squad, scoring 32 for the Panthers in a 65-48 Lady Topper win on Dec. 11 in Diddle Arena.
“It wasn’t any surprise,” Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles said. “She had 32 on us in our place so it’s not like we didn’t know she was capable.”
Cowles focused on several other Lady Topper shortcomings as factors that led to the loss.
“Turning the ball over 23 times, giving up eight free throws, giving up 16 offensive rebounds, that was the difference in the game,” she said.
The Lady Toppers looked on the way to their first road win of the year when a 3 from freshman guard Alexis Govan gave WKU a 36-21 lead with 14:42 to play.
But Coley began chipping away at the lead, going on a personal 6-0 run to cut the WKU lead to 36-27.
Obafemi hit a free throw to push the lead back to 10, but the Panthers launched a 10-0 run between the 11:22 and 9:53 marks of the second half to tie the game at 39.
Cowles said FIU grabbed the game’s momentum when it began turning up the pressure defense.
“They went to their press and we really got back on our heels,” she said. “We didn’t handle it well at all.”
The Lady Toppers went on a 7-2 run to retake a 46-41 lead.
Coley kept the Panthers around, hitting a layup and two free throws to cut the lead to one.
Then with 5:45 to play she gave FIU its first lead of the second half, stealing the ball from sophomore guard Ellen Sholtes and going in for a layup to put the Panthers up 47-46.
The teams traded points over the next few possessions setting up a 49-49 tie.
Then with the shot clock ticking down on an FIU possession, Coley stepped back and hit the 3 that proved to be the dagger.
Coley finished out the game from the free throw line, going 6-of-8 on foul shots over the game’s final 1:46.
“She’s definitely one of the best players in the league, just because of how versatile she is,” Obafemi said of Coley. “She can drive, she can hit her 3s, she’s a good passer and a pretty good defender. She’s a really good player.”
WKU came out of the gates cold, trailing FIU 8-0 early.
Freshman forward Chastity Gooch came off the bench to get the Lady Toppers on the board with two free throws at the 14:32 mark of the first half.
Gooch and sophomore guard Chaney Means were not in the starting lineup for the second straight game, as Cowles started Sholtes and freshman guard Ileana Johnson instead.
Also, senior forward Keshia Mosley, the team’s second leading scorer averaging 9.4 points per game, didn’t appear.
Cowles said Mosley’s lack of playing time came from “trying to find combinations.”
After trailing 8-0 to begin the game, WKU finished the half on a 24-7 run to take a 24-15 halftime lead.
Obafemi led WKU with 14 points, and senior forward LaTeira Owens added 12.
FIU guard Fanni Hutlassa added 12 for the Panthers to go along with Coley’s 36.
The Lady Toppers have a week off before their next game, a Feb. 4 home date with East Division rival South Alabama.
Obafemi said that game will start a crucial stretch that determines what will become of this Lady Topper team.
“We still have high hopes for the season,” Obafemi said. “We’re not giving up.”