Howard’s absence doesn’t slow Lady Tops on road swing

Cole Claybourn

It’s never easy to guess how a team will respond when it loses its top scorer.

But if this past week is any indication, the loss of sophomore forward Janae Howard may not be affecting the Lady Toppers all that much.

For the first time this season, the Lady Toppers (12-14, 9-5 Sun Belt Conference) won two straight road games, including a win over UALR — the Sun Belt’s top team — and a 20-point win over Louisiana-Lafayette.

Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles said it was a “huge advancement” for WKU to win back-to-back road games at this point in the season.

“It’s a very important time as we’re heading down the stretch here and trying to get things figured out for the (conference) tournament,” she said. “We’ve been very, very focused, and our defense has been solid. Offensively, we’ve just had people step up and score. And rebounding has continued to be a strength of ours.”

WKU needed to win both games and must now win its remaining two contests just to finish the regular season with a .500 record. The Lady Toppers also needed to win three out of their final four games in order to claim a No. 2 seed in the Sun Belt Conference tournament.

A No. 2 seed would guarantee them a first-round bye and allow them to play three games in three days, rather than four games in four days, in order to win the conference tournament.

All of that considered, Cowles said the players didn’t look at their Arkansas road swing as a must-win situation, but more of a chance to make a statement.

“I think our team just got sick and tired of not getting it done and just grabbed each other’s hands,” Cowles said. “They are very knowledgeable of the fact that we haven’t played the kind of basketball that we’re capable of playing.

“It’s that time of year. It’s now or never. This was just a situation where they said, ‘Look, we’ve got to get this done.’”

Howard departed as the team leader in points per game, 3-point percentage and blocks. While her absence left some big shoes to fill, junior forward Keisha Mosley said WKU didn’t look to just one person to fill her spot.

Instead, she said the team gained a new sense of unity.

“We’ve been stressing ‘hold the rope,’ which means hold each other accountable in practice,” Mosley said. “If somebody’s doing anything wrong, we pick that person up and let them know about their mistakes. We’ve been more together and more focused in practice.

“We all just have to come out playing our hardest. Yeah, we miss Janae, but we just have to keep moving forward from that.”

Both wins were convincing for the Lady Toppers. They never trailed by more than two in either game and were virtually in control the entire way.

They also shot better from the field than their opponent in both games and out-rebounded their  foe by more than 20 each game.

Against ULL on Saturday, WKU won the rebounding battle, 52-25.

Junior forward LaTeira Owens said that’s what the Lady Toppers are capable of when they play well for 40 minutes, with or without Howard.

“We know we’re a team. That’s what people don’t know about us,” she said. “We did this as a team effort, and that’s what we’re going to do for the rest of the season.”

The Lady Toppers host Florida International on Wednesday for their final home game of the season. Seniors Hope Brown, Arnika Brown and Amy McNear will be recognized for Senior Night.