For all intents and purposes, the Lady Toppers’ game at Arkansas-Little Rock on Wednesday was a must-win.
A loss would result in the first losing season under Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles and all but eliminate WKU’s hopes of a No. 2 seed in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
Knowing that, the Lady Toppers (11-14, 8-5 Sun Belt Conference) responded with a 66-64 upset over the Sun Belt’s top team.
It was the first conference loss for UALR (17-6, 11-1 SBC) and the Lady Trojans’ first at home this season. It also snapped a 14-game winning streak.
“We were so focused. We were so determined,” Cowles said. “I’m just really proud of our girls. They just battled, battled and battled. There’s no other way to describe that.”
The Lady Toppers jumped out to a 15-8 lead, but an 11-2 run by UALR brought the game to a 17-17 tie.
The Lady Toppers led for nearly the entire first half and went into the half with a 28-26 lead, thanks to 43.5 percent shooting from the field.
They also held the Sun Belt’s top scorer, UALR forward Chastity Reed, to just six points in the first half.
But WKU committed 12 turnovers in the first half, which resulted in 11 points for UALR and allowed them to remain in the game.
There were seven lead changes total in the second half.
The see-saw battle continued the rest of the way. UALR led by one with 1:50 left to play, but senior forward Arnika Brown scored to put the Lady Toppers back up by one.
Reed scored to give UALR a one-point lead again with under a minute left to play, but senior guard Amy McNear matched it with a jumper to give WKU a 65-64 lead again with 18.5 seconds left to play.
UALR elected to take a shot with time left on the clock, and Reed’s attempt was off the mark.
Junior forward Teranie Thomas grabbed her 13th rebound — tying a career high — and was fouled. She hit 1-of-2 free throws to give WKU a two-point lead with four seconds remaining.
UALR then inbounded the ball and called an immediate timeout to draw up a play. Reed took the inbounds pass, but her 15-footer missed.
“We just stuck to the game plan more than anything,” Brown said. “Things weren’t just going in one ear and out the other. We were just focused.”
It was WKU’s first game since sophomore forward Janae Howard’s departure, which was announced by Cowles on Monday.
Howard led the team in both scoring and 3-point percentage.
“We’re a team, and we’ve been through this before,” Brown said. “We just lost Howard a couple of days ago, but this kind of response just shows that we’re still going to hold each other’s hands even tighter.”
Junior forward LaTeira Owens said the Lady Toppers just tried to relax, and most importantly, have fun.
“That’s what Coach Cowles has been trying to tell us,” she said. “Just have fun, but at the same time focus and play hard.”
The Lady Toppers had four players in double figures, led by Brown’s 18 points and five rebounds.
They shot 49 percent from the field and out-rebounded UALR, 43-26.
Reed finished with 17 points and nine rebounds to lead UALR.
The Lady Toppers still need to win at least two more of their remaining three games to have a shot at the No. 2 seed in the tournament, starting with Saturday’s game at 2 p.m. at Louisiana-Lafayette.
Despite its 11-15 record, Cowles said ULL can’t be overlooked.
“That’s as good a team as we’ll play,” Cowles said. “They play well at home. They’re very athletic and (Head Coach Errol Rogers) has got them playing extremely hard.”