Lady Toppers finish regular season on a hot streak

Michael Casagrande

When the Lady Toppers entered last year’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament, they were the No. 1 seed and hadn’t lost since mid-January.

This season’s squad shared much of the same adversity as last season’s, but not the same success – until February.

The Lady Toppers won seven of eight games during the shortest month of the year to close the season East Division Co-champion and the No. 3 seed in the tournament.

The wave of momentum Western is currently riding was less than a ripple when it reached the low point of the season Jan. 8.

Following a 77-71 loss at Liberty, the Lady Toppers were 5-8 and searching for hope.

The preseason pick to repeat as East Division champion had a less than impressive lineup after injuries, sickness and defections ate away at the roster.

Freshman forward Cacie Pope was receiving treatment for a brain cancer. Freshman Charlotte Marshall had missed several games with a shoulder injury and senior forward Leah Lineberry quit the team in early December.

Of the nine healthy players on the roster, only five had previous collegiate experience.

The amount of adversity the team had to overcome was high, which forced the team to come together more so than last year’s team, junior guard Camryn Whitaker said.

“This year’s team has had to overcome a lot more adversity,” she said. “With Cacie, and mentally us having to deal with that. But I think that is only going to help us now.”

In retrospect, Marshall agreed that the valleys have only made the peaks much sweeter.

“Those games were games that would get us ready for this point in time with our conference tournament beginning and our conference season that wasn’t finished,” Marshall said. “It was kind of a down point, but you learn from things like that.”

Seven games later and coming off a pair of Sun Belt road losses to Louisiana-Lafayette and New Mexico State, Western needed a reversal of fortunes. The U-turn would have to come at Middle Tennessee State five days into February.

“We were pretty disappointed at that point in time,” assistant coach David Graves said. “We knew we could play a lot better than we were playing.”

The Lady Raiders were 14-6 then and held the same advantage all-time against Western at home.

“We were real focused going into that game,” Whitaker said. “We knew that it was a big game for us because it came to the point in time when we had to turn it around.”

But, as a sign of things to come, Western escaped Murfreesboro with a 70-68 win in double overtime. Sophomore guard Tiffany Porter-Talbert took over scoring responsibilities during February, becoming a front-runner for conference Player of the Year.

Porter-Talbert averaged 18.5 points per game in February and scored a career-high 34 points Feb. 19 against Arkansas-Little Rock. The only game in which she didn’t score in double figures was in the finale at Florida International when she scored eight.

The only February blemish came on the Feb. 21 when Arkansas State ended Western’s 13-game regular season home win streak in conference play. The loss also ended hopes of landing the No. 1 seed in the tournament.

The Lady Toppers responded to the loss by winning their final two games, securing the No. 3 seed in the eight team field.

The key to the late season turnabout was the positive attitude the team held throughout the trying schedule, Graves said.

“You never can get too high if you are playing great and you can never get too low if you are not playing great,” he said. “We never put our heads down and think we couldn’t get it done.”

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected].