There’s no place like Diddle

Michael Casagrande

Last season, Western rode into Diddle Arena and the Sun Belt Conference Tournament as the No. 1 seed.

Flip the calendar 12 times and the Lady Toppers are feeling confident even without a No.1 seed.

The reason: They will again play on the home court that has been a burial ground for almost every conference opponent in recent seasons.

Both freshman guard Charlotte Marshall and sophomore guard Tiffany Porter-Talbert said they are the team to beat when the tournament begins.

“We do consider ourselves to be the favorites since we are the defending champions playing on our home court,” Porter-Talbert said.

Western has only one conference home loss in the Mary Taylor Cowles era and had won 13 in a row before bowing to Arkansas State 70-60 on Feb. 21.

The 10 other teams currently in the Sun Belt hold a 11-88 record (11.1 percent) against Western in Diddle. Four of those teams have never won in Diddle Arena, including No. 1 seed South Alabama who is 0-19 in the 41-year-old building.

The Jaguars most recent Diddle defeat came Jan. 24 when Western dominated USA 66-52.

Assistant coach David Graves said he hasn’t figured out what makes playing at Diddle translate into such a high winning percentage, but he still would not consider Western the favorite to win back-to-back titles.

“I guess if I knew that, I would bottle it and sell it,” Graves said. “You can’t really put your finger on it, it’s just the fans and this community create a great atmosphere. They are having fun in Diddle Arena because the fans make it fun.”

More fans file into Diddle Arena on game day than at any other Sun Belt venue on average this season. An average of 1,691 fans made it to Diddle each game this season. South Alabama has the second highest average attendance with 1,366 -325 less than Western. The success at home is tradition, as Western had the No. 8 home winning percentage (82.9 percent) nationally entering the season.

Junior guard Camryn Whitaker said she isn’t envious of teams coming into Diddle to play the Lady Toppers.

“As a player, if I had to come into Diddle and play on an opposing team, I would have to say I wouldn’t like it,” Whitaker said. “Our fans are awesome here and its a hard place to place to play, but it’s great for us because we are used to it.”

The team that will face Western in the first round is Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin Cajuns finished their season with three straight losses, the last of which came at the hands of Arkansas-Little Rock.

Lafayette was routed by the Trojans 62-46 in only their third conference win of the season on Feb. 28. Western has never lost to Lafayette at home in 12 previous meetings. In a Sun Belt season that no one team has separated from the pack, there appears to be no clear cut front runner.

Only three teams have single digit loss totals overall (Arkansas State, MTSU, USA) and only one of the eight tournament participants have won a title in the past, Western.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected].