Lady Toppers get early test against No. 8 Duke

Brad Stephens

Mary Taylor Cowles said she likes the idea of playing one of the nation’s best just three games into the season.

Her Lady Toppers (0-2) host No. 8 Duke (2-0) at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

The WKU head coach said on Friday that facing the Blue Devils in November will be the type of matchup that gets her players prepared for future tournament play.

“This is an NCAA game,” Cowles said. “They’re that good and they’re there every year, so this gives you an idea of the physicality of the game and the speed of the game is like in postseason. We get that third game of the season.”

Duke has one of the nation’s most consistent women’s basketball programs, making 17 straight NCAA tournament appearances since 1995.

The Blue Devils have started this season well also, averaging 12.5 steals per game while allowing opponents just 52.5 points per contest in wins over Brigham Young and Auburn.

“Duke is an athletic team,” senior forward LaTeira Owens said. “They have height and they work hard on defense. We’ll have to make sure we protect the ball on offense and make sure we get stops on defense.”

Duke has been led this season by freshman center Elizabeth Williams and sophomore guard Chelsea Gray.

Williams, the No. 1 girls’ high school player last season according to various publications, leads the team in both points (13.0 per game) and rebounds (nine per game).

Meanwhile Gray has averaged 11 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals per game.

Cowles said her team will have to guard against Gray’s driving abilities.

“With a player like her, you’ve got to keep her in front of you, or try your best to keep her in front of you,” Cowles said. “She is a very dominant player with the ball in her hands attacking the basket.”

The Blue Devils round out their starting five with guards Chloe Wells and Shay Selby and forward Haley Peters.

WKU is coming off its second loss in as many games, a 71-57 defeat at Northwestern.

The Lady Toppers were plagued in that game by both turnovers (21) and inconsistent free throw shooting (7 of 20).

Owens said the team has put in extra work on free throws since returning to Bowling Green.

“I think maybe it’s a mental thing (in games) — we focus but not all the way through the shot,” she said. “I think that’s something we’ve been working on.”

Duke will be the highest-ranked opponent to come into Diddle Arena since WKU faced No. 3 Louisiana Tech in 2000.

Cowles said it’s a unique opportunity for which she hopes the Lady Toppers are ready.

“We’ve got to step up to this challenge,” Cowles said. “This is big for our program, to be able to play against this kind of talent at home… But Duke understands that too. They’re going to come in here with their A game and ready to play.”