Cowles hopes young, old take WKU back to NCAA tournament

Head coach Mary Taylor Cowles will look to her five seniors to help guide the Lady Toppers back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.  Senior forward LaTeira Owens (No. 31) is WKU’s top returning scorer after averaging 10.4 points per game as a junior last season.

Brad Stephens

There’s a contrast of old and new with this season’s Lady Toppers.

On the old side are experienced players LaTeira Owens and Vanessa Obafemi, two of WKU’s five seniors.

On the new are former Texas Class 4A high school Player of the Year Summer Fife, three-time Arizona Girls Basketball Player of the Year Ileana Johnson and five other Lady Topper freshmen.

“It’s pretty unique, the combination of veterans and experience with non-experience,” said Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles, entering her 10th season as WKU’s coach.

Cowles will be hoping the combination of senior leadership and freshman enthusiasm will take the Lady Toppers back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.

WKU didn’t qualify for postseason play at all one season ago, going 15-17 before losing to Arkansas-Little Rock in the Sun Belt Conference Championship game.

According to the Sun Belt coaches’ preseason predictions, the Lady Toppers will be staying home once again this March.

League coaches picked WKU to finish third in the East Division behind Middle Tennessee State and Florida International.

Owens said she doesn’t mind others having low expectations of the Lady Toppers this year.

“We have a lot to prove because a lot of people count us out,” she said. “It feels good to be underdogs because any night we could come out and show them that we should’ve been picked No. 1.”

Cowles said she’s been pleased with the way her seniors have taken initiative in both directing all the freshmen and trying to surpass the league’s modest expectations.

“They’ve all understood that it’s their senior year and they need to step up, and they’ve done that,” she said. “It’s come together extremely strong for us.”

Johnson agreed with Cowles, saying the patience of the more experienced Lady Toppers has eased the transition of the WKU freshmen into the college game.

“It’s been a lot of learning, and the seniors have been there kind of holding our hands through it,” Johnson said.

All of the freshmen got playing time last Sunday in the Lady Toppers’ 84-59 win over Kentucky Wesleyan.

Guard Alexis Govan made the biggest impression of the newcomers, notching eight points, three rebounds, three assists and a block.

Saturday’s game against Towson will give WKU fans the chance to see Govan and the rest of the freshman class in their first ever regular season game.

Tipoff between the Lady Toppers and Tigers is set for 4 p.m. in Diddle Arena.

Cowles said that after playing against each other every day since Oct. 3, her players are ready to see some new competition.

She said WKU’s toughest test will be containing Towson point guard Krystal Parnell, who averaged 10.5 points per game and dished out 134 assists one year ago.

“For us it’s just the principles of our defense, whether it’s in the half-court, whether it’s extending the defense,” Cowles said. “Communication’s going to be a big key for us, especially out on the perimeter.”

She said much of the team’s focus this week has been in setting up a game plan specific to the Tigers.

But Cowles said there’s still work to be done in getting her own team ready for the upcoming year.

“I am concerned about us, I’ll be real honest with you,” she said. “But we’ve got to prepare too.”