WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Big catch fueling Lady Topper hope

Michael Casagrande

Twelve seasons ago, Western played in the NCAA national championship game.

Now, after a decade of successes and failures, the Lady Toppers are poised to regain their national prominence.

The addition of All-American and Kentucky Miss Basketball Crystal Kelly last week looks to have filled one of the big links the Lady Toppers have been missing.

A player in the paint.

Coach Mary Taylor Cowles would not go so far as to guarantee a starting role in the season opener, but she did say Kelly had a very good opportunity.

“She is a great start to what we think we’ve been missing in the post as far as a dominant presence,” Cowles said. “Anytime you can do that with an All-American, you’re headed in the right direction.”

Last season, Western had no one taller than 6-foot-1. The addition of Kelly’s 6-foot-3 frame will fill the presence in the paint that smaller players had to assume last season.

Freshman forward Carla Bartee was the team’s leading rebounder at 6-feet tall.

Even with the height disparity, Kelly said that starting right away was not one of her top priorities when she was making her college decision.

Kelly, the first Miss Basketball to come to Western since Rachel Byars in 1997, also impressed Cowles as a strong student with good values.

When she steps on the Diddle Arena floor in the fall, she will bring a winning attitude. In her four seasons at Sacred Heart Academy, Kelly went 139-9 and won three state titles. Her 2,377 points and 1,478 rebounds are both school records.

Paul Sanderford led Western as head coach for 15 seasons and took the program to all three of its Final Fours. Sanderford said he likes that Kelly was a winner on the high school level, much like Cowles when he was recruiting her in the late 1980s.

“To get a Kentucky kid who was Miss Basketball, the perception throughout the state and country is tremendous,” he said. “The great thing about her is she is a quality individual.”

Landing Kelly after a fierce recruiting battle with Kentucky and Louisville shows Western can compete with its larger rivals.

“It shows we have not faded away,” Cowles said. “The fact that we do have the number one photojournalism program in the country shows you that we cannot only compete on the basketball court, but we can compete in the classroom.”

Kelly is the fourth member of the recruiting class that includes Bridgette Brown, Ashley Butler and Racquel Mattis.

Redshirt freshman forward Cacie Pope could be counted as the fifth after missing all of last season recovering from brain surgery. Coming into last season, Cowles said she expected Pope to be the top freshman in the class that included Bartee and guard Charlotte Marshall.

Pope said she looks forward to playing with someone of Kelly’s level of talent.

“We definitely need the height,” Pope said. “I can’t wait until next year … We lost some games because we needed some height and me and Crystal Kelly will come in and help.”

Cowles said she is not finished recruiting current high school seniors. Bowling Green High School center Cary Bell has been recruited heavily and has yet to announce a decision.

Western Ticket Manager Jim Cope said the ticket office has seen an increased interest in women’s season ticket sales. Since the Thursday signing, Cope said the ticket office has received 30 to 40 season ticket requests for next season.

“I’m sure we will see an increase in women’s basketball sales, at least 10 to 15 percent,” he said.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected].