WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Lady Tops host Cincinnati in first round of WNIT

Michael Casagrande

Last season, Western fans gathered in Diddle Arena waiting for the Lady Toppers’ NCAA fate to be displayed on the video boards.

Sunday night, Diddle was dark and computer screens replaced PepsiVision as Western received a bid to play in the postseason WNIT Tournament.

The Lady Toppers will meet Cincinnati (15-15) on Friday in the first round at 7 p.m. in Diddle Arena.

Coach Mary Taylor Cowles said the news arrived in bits and pieces Sunday night. She was told Western was in when she called the selection committee a little after 9 p.m. She did not know the opponent or site until Bearcat officials called to set up a practice schedule a short time later.

“It was not really confusing,” Cowles said. “Just prolonged a little bit. They have such a big job, waiting until after the NCAA picks. We knew. We felt pretty good about us being in and we knew that it would take a little while to get everything situated.”

With their WNIT appearance, Western will be playing in a postseason tournament in 20 of the last 21 seasons.

The only season the Lady Toppers did not participate in postseason play came in 1998-99 when then coach Steve Small turned down a bid to play in the WNIT.

The decision to not play was one Small said he wishes he could do over again. Western was 21-7 and expected to make the NCAA field when the excited team gathered to watch the selection show.

The phone rang soon after the Lady Toppers were not selected by the NCAA with a bid to play in the WNIT. Small then took a poll of players and coaches about accepting the bid.

“Unanimously, we didn’t want to play in the WNIT that year,” Small said. “If I had to do it all over again, I would not have given them a choice.”

The refusal came as a result of injuries and emotion from not making the NCAA field, Small said.

This season, there was no decision to make, as the WNIT gives Cowles’ young team more opportunity to play deep into March, Cowles said.

“It’s going to be a good experience,” sophomore guard Tiffany Porter-Talbert said. “It’s not where we want to be. We wanted to be in the NCAA, but now we can’t get there so we have to get ready for Cincinnati.”

Junior guard Camryn Whitaker said the team will not have a hard time getting motivated to play in the WNIT.

“It’s another game,” Whitaker said. “As long as we get to continue to play. There are a lot of teams that would love to be invited to the WNIT.”

Western is one of three Sun Belt Conference teams to make the 32-team field along with Arkansas State and South Alabama.

Middle Tennessee State received a No. 13 seed in the East Region in the NCAA Tournament. The Sun Belt Conference Champion will meet No. 4 seeded North Carolina in South Bend, Ind.

Should Western beat Cincinnati, it will have to wait again before finding out when and where the second round game will be played. The second round sites will be determined partially by the attendance of first round games.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]