Lady Tops survive second half push by ULM for 80-71 win

Junior forward Teranie Thomas and freshman guard Ellen Sholtes celebrate after winning Saturday’s game against the Louisiana-Monroe. The Lady Toppers won 80-71.

Cole Claybourn

One of the first things Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles said after Saturday’s win over Louisiana-Monroe was, “Thank goodness for our big lead in the first half.”

The Lady Toppers (10-13, 7-4 Sun Belt Conference) took a 23-point lead into halftime and needed every bit of it to hold off ULM in the second half for an 80-71 win in Diddle Arena

ULM (12-12, 6-5 Sun Belt) outscored WKU in the second half by 14, but the Lady Toppers hit several free throws down the stretch to seal their fifth straight home victory.

“It was a good win,” Cowles said. “We let a lead slip, but I’m just really proud of our young ladies for holding on and finding a way to make some things happen. We made some plays, and we made it happen to where we got the win.”

The first half was all WKU. The Lady Toppers scored on their first three possessions to set the tone, and they then went on a 16-0 run midway through the first half to take a 26-point lead — their largest of the game.

Senior forward Arnika Brown and sophomore forward Janae Howard were both in double digits by halftime with 12 points apiece, and WKU shot 48.4 percent from the field and went 4-of-9 from 3-point range.

“We just got the ball inside early, and the post started scoring,” Brown said. “The double and triple team came, and we just kicked it out to the guards. It was that inside-out game, which we practice.”

The Lady Toppers held ULM to just 25 percent shooting from the field in the first half and scored 20 points off ULM’s 13 turnovers.

But the second half was a much different story.

ULM opened up the second half with a 12-4 run to make it a 51-36 game with just under 17 minutes left in the game.

With 12:48 left to play, Brown left the game after turning her right ankle, the same one she sprained against FAU last week.

Even with Brown out, the Lady Toppers were able to stretch their lead back to 20 with 11:05 remaining.

ULM would continue to claw back though, putting together several more runs. They capped off an 8-0 run with 7:52 left to play to make it a 12-point game.

Brown returned to the game, but it didn’t slow down ULM — especially point guard Elizabeth Torres. She helped engineer ULM’s final run, which eventually became a 22-7 spurt.

Torres had 15 second-half points to help bring ULM within six. But that was as close as ULM got the rest of the way, as WKU hit 7-of-8 free throws in the final minute to seal the game.

It was a situation the Lady Toppers have faced often this season — letting large leads slip. Cowles said maintaining focus for the entire game has been a cause for concern this season, and that it was no different on Saturday.

“We relaxed a little,” she said. “We look at the scoreboard, and we realize we’ve got a nice lead, and we just kind of take a mental break. We can’t do that in our league. Our competition is too tough.

“Hopefully we will just continue to strengthen our mindset when we are in that position and hold onto the lead, and maybe build upon it.”

Senior guard Amy McNear said it wasn’t so much WKU letting up, but that ULM made better defensive adjustments.

She also said that ULM was finally hitting shots. They ended up shooting 45.7 percent in the second half and 35.9 percent for the game. They hit three 3-pointers in the second half and went to the free throw line 14 times, converting on all but two attempts.

“The intensity was still there,” McNear said. “But offensively, they were very good and were making shots. They were contested, so I think it was just a good half by them as well. But I’m glad we stayed focused and held our composure to get the win.”

McNear had a double-double with 17 points and 10 assists. Her 10 assists brought her season total to 141 — the most she’s had in any of her four seasons as a Lady Topper.

Brown also had a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Howard led all scorers with 24 points.

The Lady Toppers will play again Wednesday at Diddle Arena against Middle Tennessee. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m.