Lady Toppers overcome Denver, advance to Sun Belt semifinals


Junior LaTeira Owens celebrates courtside after the Lady Toppers score in the second half of Sunday’s game against Denver. WKU won 65-57 and advanced to the semifinals of the Sun Belt tournament.

Jonathan Lintner

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles said before this season started — and reminded the Sun Belt Conference on Sunday — that the Lady Toppers are about more than one or two “superstars.”

The explanation wasn’t needed. WKU’s supporting cast spoke for itself on Sunday.

After trailing by eight points in the second half, the Lady Toppers (14-16) ran out to a double-digit lead and held on for a 65-57 win over Denver (19-11) in the second round of the Sun Belt tournament.

WKU used a strong outing by junior guard Vanessa Obafemi, who scored a career-high 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting, as well as 14 points from senior guard Hope Brown and 13 from junior center Jasmine Johnson.

“Coach Cowles said earlier that we need different people to step up every game, because you never know whose game it’s going to be,” Obafemi said. “This afternoon, us three stepped up.”

As a result, the Lady Toppers survive and advance to the semifinal round of the Sun Belt tournament, where they’ll face Arkansas State at noon Monday in Summit Arena.

Getting to that point wasn’t easy.

WKU trailed Denver, 36-28, with just more than 17 minutes to play in the game, before the Lady Toppers went on an 18-6 run over the next seven minutes to take a 46-42 lead.

Cowles said part of turning the game around was solving Denver’s defense that made no secret of doubling WKU’s post players.

“That’s really what was most frustrating because it took us a little while to really, really understand that in today’s game no matter how many times we saw it on film last night,” she said. “It took us a while today to get used to that and understand it.”

Once WKU started finding shooters opposite the double team, 3s started raining. Brown made 3-of-6 3-pointers, and Obafemi connected from deep on 4-of-7 attempts.

“I was already confident after the first half when my shots were falling,” Obafemi said. “Coach Cowles and our other coaching staff kept saying to be shot-ready because they’re doubling in the post. I had a lot of open shots, and my teammates did a good job of finding me.”

Junior forward LaTeira Owens’ 3-point play with 6:57 to play – her only points of the game – proved to be the go-ahead basket after nine lead changes.

Senior guard Amy McNear, who chipped in 12 points after scoring a season-high 25 against North Texas on Saturday, said offensive execution was a point of emphasis during halftime.

“We kicked it out, and they were making open shots,” Brown said about the second-half response.

WKU was lucky to be within four points of Denver at the half. The Lady Toppers turned the ball over 13 times and had just 2 assists.

But the WKU bench stepped up in the second half and out-scored the Pioneers’ subs, 29-10, for the game.

Denver forward Kaetlyn Murdoch, an all-conference selection, had 19 points to lead all scorers. Denver forward Brianna Culberson recorded a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds.

Cowles said the Lady Toppers need to repeat their second-half play from Denver against Arkansas State on Monday.

“I told them going into tomorrow’s semifinals that we’re in a position that this program is used to being in, and we need to take a huge step forward tomorrow with our preparation today and tonight for Arkansas State,” Cowles said. “We need to take a step forward and continue this type of focus and intensity.”