WKU defense stifles FIU 65-48 in SBC opener

Brad Stephens

It had been more than a decade since WKU played as good of a defensive half as it did on Sunday.

The Lady Toppers allowed Florida International to score just 11 points in the first half on 4-of-22 shooting.

WKU cruised on to a 65-48 win in Diddle Arena in the team’s first game in Sun Belt Conference play.

The 11 first half points were the fewest allowed in a half by the Lady Toppers since Texas Pan-American scored just nine second-half points on Jan. 15, 1998.

WKU (3-8, 1-0 Sun Belt) also shot 54 percent in the opening period, including a 4-of-7 effort from behind the arc.

“I don’t know if it was our defensive intensity that sparked our offense or if it was our good shooting that sparked our defense, but we picked a great time to piece it all together,” Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles said. “Our ladies came in with a purpose and understood what opening conference play meant.”

WKU’s 17-point win comes two days after a 26-point loss to Illinois State.

It was also the Lady Toppers’ fourth game in a seven day stretch.

“These past couple of days, we’ve been talking about starting a new season with conference play,” senior guard Vanessa Obafemi said. “We wanted to get that first win.”

Obafemi scored a team-high 22 points while shooting 5-of-8 on three point shots and 7-of-8 from the free throw line.

Her three-pointer with 16:07 to play gave the Lady Toppers a 39-13 lead, their biggest of the game.

She also notched four assists and three rebounds in 37 minutes of play in WKU’s last game until Dec. 21.

“I also thought she was really good defensively as well,” Cowles said. “She ended up playing 37 minutes out of 40. (Assistant) Coach (Camryn) Whitaker looked at me at one time about the 12-minute mark of the second half and said Vanessa’s not been out yet in the second half.

“I said, ‘Well she’s got about 10 days off after today’s game.'”

The Lady Toppers cruised for the game’s first 30 minutes until a late FIU run.

The Golden Panthers, who scored just 22 points before the 8:53 mark of the second half, scored 26 in the final minutes.

They were led down the stretch by guard Jerica Coley, who scored a game-high 32 on Sunday.

Coley came into the game as the Sun Belt’s top scorer, averaging 23.8 points per game, and took almost as many shots (27) as the rest of her team (30).

“I don’t really know what you do with Coley, to be honest,” Cowles said. “She’s just a phenomenal player.”

FIU cut the lead to as little as 12 in the game’s final minutes, using a full court press that forced several Lady Topper turnovers.

The Golden Panthers also racked up 14 fouls in the second half in an effort to extend the game.

But Obafemi and sophomore guard Chaney Means combined to go 13-of-14 from the charity stripe, keeping FIU’s comeback hopes at bay.

“I didn’t really like the way the game ended with their pressure extending and the way we handled it, but at the same time, I liked that we had to handle it and find a way to deal with it,” Cowles said. “We did exactly that.”

Means and senior forward LaTeira Owens joined Obafemi as WKU players in double-digits, scoring 12 apiece.

Meanwhile freshman forward Chastity Gooch chipped in with eight points and 11 rebounds, seven of which were offensive.

Guard Fanni Mansare was the only FIU player other than Coley to score more than two points on Sunday.

The Budapest native scored eight points on 3-of-10 shooting.

Coley’s Golden Panther teammates made just five field goals for the entire game.

Owens got WKU’s day started offensively with two made jump shots.

Mansare hit a shot to make it a 4-2 game, but the Lady Toppers then launched a 10-0 win to take control of the game early.

Three-pointers from Means and Obafemi and layups by Gooch and Owens gave WKU a 14-2 lead.

FIU cut the deficit to single-digits just once after that, at the 10:43 mark of the second half.

The Lady Toppers’ next game is a road date on Dec. 21 with Texas Tech.

Obafemi said she hoped to see the same kind of effort from WKU in that game that was on display Sunday in Diddle.

We can’t play good one game and then let down the next game,” Obafemi said. “We have to carry this over into our next game, which is a while from now, but we’ll be ready.”