Lady Toppers treating Sun Belt tourney as new season

Senior forward Arnika Brown drives to the basket before shooting during Sunday night’s game at Middle Tennessee. The Lady Toppers lost, 64-56, in their last regular season game before the Sun Belt tournament begins Saturday in Hot Springs, Ark.

Cole Claybourn

Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles wasn’t ready to call this season forgettable following WKU’s 64-56 loss to Middle Tennessee in its regular-season finale on Sunday.

But forgetting their 12-16 overall record this season is exactly what she and the Lady Toppers are choosing to do heading into this weekend’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Hot Springs, Ark.

“We’re 0-0 going into the conference tournament,” Cowles said. “That’s the perfect mindset to have. It’s all a matter of perspective and how you look at it. This regular season is over. Crazy things have happened in this conference this year. It’s a different game every night.”

WKU had a chance to clinch a No. 2 seed and a first-round bye with a win against Florida International on Wednesday, but lost 75-62 and forfeited the No. 2 seed to FIU.

Instead, the Lady Toppers will have to settle for the No. 3 seed in the East division and will face North Texas (5-23, 2-13 Sun Belt Conference) at noon on Saturday in the first game of the tournament.

That means they’ll have to win four games in four days to win the title.

That could prove to be a steep challenge for the Lady Toppers, who haven’t won more than two games in a row all season.

But senior guard Amy McNear said doing so isn’t totally out of the realm of possibilities.

She even went as far as to say the challenge has given the Lady Toppers an added sense of urgency.

“We want to get to the tournament and advance,” she said. “But if we’re going to do it, we’ve got to do it in four days. We have to come out focused with energy and intensity. We can’t back down. We’ve got to give it our all every day.”

The Lady Toppers were a No. 3 seed in last year’s Sun Belt tournament and made it to the semifinals before losing to eventual champion MTSU. McNear said they have reason to believe they can have the same kind of success this year, saying the tournament field is “wide open.”

“The Sun Belt Conference has been up and down this year,” she said. “Any given night can be anybody’s game. Any team can be on. I think we just have to be one of those teams and be like, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ We’ve got to make a statement.”

Cowles also said the parity in the tournament bodes well for the Lady Toppers.

“We’ve seen some really unique outcomes this year,” she said. “That gives teams the understanding that anything can happezn. It’s a different game every time you step out on the floor.”

The Lady Toppers have seen that proven true first-hand this year when they dealt Arkansas-Little Rock its first Sun Belt loss in WKU’s first game after the departure of leading scorer Janae Howard.

But first, Cowles said the Lady Toppers have to put their focus on North Texas.

The two teams met just once this season on Jan. 8 at Diddle Arena. The Lady Toppers won that game, 69-64.

They’ll head into the game having won four of their last seven but will also be amidst a two-game losing streak. North Texas, on the other hand, will try to break a nine-game losing streak Tuesday night in its season finale against UALR.

Senior forward Arnika Brown is no stranger to the Sun Belt tournament and said it’s time for the team to start getting in the right mindset.

“This is pretty much ‘do-or-die’ time,” she said. “We just have to pull our team together and hold each other’s hand. We’ll just take next week and get ready to play. You either stick to the game plan, or you don’t. You win, or you go home.”