Cowles hoping tournament run leads to added motivation next season

The Lady Toppers walk off the court after losing to Arkansas-Little Rock in the championship game of the Sun Belt tournament. The Toppers ended their season with a 15-17 record.

Jonathan Lintner

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — The Lady Toppers heard the critics who suggested their trip to the Sun Belt Conference Tournament might be short-lived.

It’s just that they refused to listen, marching to the championship round as the East division’s No. 3 seed with wins over North Texas, Denver and Arkansas State.

Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles told reporters “this is Lady Topper basketball” after WKU’s 66-59 loss to Arkansas-Little Rock on Tuesday. Coming into the game, a WKU team with a losing record had a shot at an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

“This is what we’re about. This is how we go about things,” Cowles said. “There’s going to be some rough patches along the way, but we’re not down and out by any means.”

The rough patches Cowles talked about could mean the program’s recent history. After winning the Sun Belt tournament in 2008, WKU lost in the first round in 2009 and bowed out in the semifinals in 2010.

Yet seniors Amy McNear, Hope Brown and Arnika Brown were a game away from postseason play.

Brown said the ups and downs were worth it, because after four and a half years at WKU, she’s gained a new family. She also took time while answering a question on Tuesday to thank President Gary Ransdell, who was watching the Lady Toppers’ press conference.

“There were times when we didn’t get along,” Brown said. “There were times we were about ready to kill each other. But we held each others’ hand. What family doesn’t have problems?”

Then there’s this season, which ended with a 15-17 record.

McNear was suspended for the Lady Toppers’ first three games of the season for a violation of team rules. Then WKU lost Janae Howard in mid-February — the team’s leading scorer — when Howard decided to quit basketball.

“We talked a lot this weekend about the adversity our program has been through this year — on the court, off the court, in the locker room, individually, team-wise,” Cowles said. “I told them after the game that if they don’t ever remember anything coach Cowles told them, I want them to remember this: When you’re faced with adversity, your true character really stands up and shows. I think these 11 young ladies have really shown their true character this year.”

Without Howard, McNear stepped up to average 16.5 points per game during the conference tournament.

“I’m going to remember it because at the beginning of this season, it was very rough for me,” McNear said.

“My teammates were behind me every step of the way.”

Cowles is hoping to parlay late-season success into momentum toward next season, which will be her 10th.

WKU returns a core of five juniors — guard Vanessa Obafemi, forwards Teranie Thomas, LaTeira Owens and Keisha Mosley, as well as center Jasmine Johnson.

Cowles also signed four guards, including Pulaski Southwestern’s Danay Fothergill and Franklin’s Chastity Gooch, as part of her 2011 recruiting class.

“Hopefully for those young ladies who are returning as well as those ones who we’ve signed already in the early period, that gives them some confidence and some motivation to feel good about where we go to this year,” Cowles said. “But we didn’t quite get all the way. So hopefully with these five juniors that we have coming back, that will be motivation in their role of leadership for next year’s team.”