Lady Tops drop season finale to MTSU, 64-56

Senior Amy McNear drives towards the basket during the first half of Sunday’s game at MTSU. The Lady Toppers lost, 64-56.

Cole Claybourn

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — The Lady Toppers knew before Sunday’s game against Middle Tennessee that they would be a No. 3 seed in the Sun Belt tournament, win or lose.

But any chance for them to gain momentum heading into next weekend’s tournament was eliminated on Sunday.

The Lady Toppers (12-16, 9-7 Sun Belt Conference) shot just 39 percent from the field and watched three MTSU players score in double figures, falling 64-56 at the Murphy Center.

“Give credit where credit’s due,” Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles said. “There were some critical things that we made mistakes on, and with Middle, you simply can’t.”

The loss officially gives WKU its first losing regular season since the 1981-82 season.

Despite trailing by 10 midway through the first half, the Lady Toppers went into halftime down just six.

But MTSU (23-6, 14-2 Sun Belt) set the tone for the rest of the game when they opened up the second half with a 3-pointer to go up by nine.

The Lady Toppers hung around, cutting the lead to six points on two separate occasions midway through the second half.

That’s when MTSU senior Anne Marie Lanning took over. She scored her 20th point of the game to put MTSU back up by eight, 46-38, with 8:53 left to play.

MTSU eventually stretched its lead to 11 — its largest of the game — with 4:50 left to play.

With 3:54 remaining, senior forward Arnika Brown was fouled and made the basket to make it a seven-point game again. Her free throw cut the deficit to six.

On the next play, senior guard Amy McNear stole the ball and was also fouled on the shot with a chance at a three-point play to make it a three-point game.

But her free throw missed, and MTSU’s Tina Stewart hit a 3-pointer to put the Blue Raiders back up by seven.

WKU never got any closer than six after that.

“We had made a really good effort right before Stewart hit that 3,” Cowles said. “We can’t have those kind of letdowns. We had some pretty critical mistakes, and obviously a team like them — they’re going to capitalize.”

Brown led WKU with 21 points and 14 rebounds. McNear added 11 points and five assists but also had seven turnovers.

Lanning led MTSU with 23 points , and Ebony Rowe added 16 points and 13 rebounds.

The Lady Toppers will shift their focus to Saturday’s first-round matchup of the Sun Belt tournament at noon against North Texas.

McNear said it’s “do-or-die” time for the Lady Toppers now.

“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 haven’t won more than two games in a row all season and will face the steep challenge of having to win four games in four days in order to win the tournament.

Cowles said she’s not worried about that and is looking at the tournament as a new season.

“We’re 0-0 going into the conference tournament,” she 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.”