Topper Two Step

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Logsdon scores 32 as Lady Tops beat MTSU in nail biter

Kristina Covington looked like a proud mother.

The Sun Belt Conference championship trophy was her fragile child.

Minutes after Western won its first conference tournament championship in eight years, Covington scooped up the hardware and cradled it in her arms.

A red Sun Belt championship hat set loosely on top of her braids.

A piece of the Diddle Arena nets was tucked safely behind the her ear.

The wait was finally over.

The Lady Toppers were champions again.

Tuesday’s 86-83 victory over Middle Tennessee also gives the Lady Toppers a place in the 64-team NCAA tournament.

“Reaching the NCAA tournament of 64 is unbelievable,” Western coach Mary Taylor Cowles said. “It’s that heightened goal that so many teams are trying to achieve and we did it.”

Western “did it” despite falling to 5-7 early in the season.

Cowles’ squad responded to finish 22-8.

The Lady Toppers will ride a 14-game winning streak into the tournament.

Brackets will be announced Sunday at 5 p.m.

“Every year I set a goal to win the Sun Belt Conference championship,” Covington said, the trophy sitting closely by her side. “I just wish I could be here three or four more years.”

The heat and passion of Tuesday had all the makings of a NCAA tourney game.

The Lady Toppers won with their back court shooting.

Junior guard Leslie Logsdon was feeling it.

She drained a school record eight 3-pointers on her way to 30 points — in the first half.

Logsdon said she’s had trouble with her shots. But a brief session with Cowles before the game built up her confidence.

Fifteen minutes of shooting made the difference.

“I haven’t been getting a lot of good shots lately,” she said. “They left me open, so I just kept shooting the ball.”

Logsdon finished with a game and career high 32 points but found her second half performance stifled by MTSU’s Ciara Gray.

Logsdon single handedly kept the Lady Toppers in the game in the first 20 minutes.

Her teammates combined for only 10 points in the first half.

“Though she had a 30-point performance and they had 10 three point baskets in the first half, they didn’t take the win out of us.”

A 6-3 run after halftime pushed the Lady Toppers to a 50-37 lead.

But with Logsdon’s hot streak ending, MTSU made a run of its own on the court and the stat sheet.

The Lady Raiders out rebounded and outshot Western, finishing the game with a 52.5 percent shooting percentage and outscoring the Lady Toppers 49-42 in the second half.

MTSU took a 61-60 lead with 10 minutes to play. The Lady Raiders took another one point lead with five minutes remaining.

Logsdon’s frustrations turned into fouls, placing her on the bench and leaving other Lady Toppers to step up.

Freshmen Tiffany Porter-Talbert and Krystal Gardner didn’t blink.

The duo combined for 10 points in the final 10 minutes.

Porter-Talbert hit several shots to answer buckets, finishing the game with 12 points.

She joins Covington and Logsdon as all-tournament team selections.

Player of the Year Shala Reese busted out of her tournament woes by scoring 15 points, most coming in Western’s final run.

“Shala knew that we needed her,” Cowles said. “When the going got tough, guess who wanted the basketball.”

But it was Covington, the senior captain, who hammered the final nails into the coffin.

She scored her team’s final four points, including a three from the right wing to put Western up five with a minute to play.

She finished with 18 points.

MTSU’s Patrice Holmes, the tournament’s most outstanding player, answered with three points on the follow possession, but time was wearing thin.

Even a premature launching of celebration confetti with a tenth of a second left couldn’t limit the Lady Topper elation.

Or the Lady Raider dejection.

Tears were in both team’s eyes, but Smith could do nothing but scratch her head.

“Maybe it was the second time playing in the environment,” Smith said when asked what was the difference when her team held the statistical edge. “What a great basketball school. We’re still so young.

“We never wanted to quit and we didn’t.”

Freshman forward Tia Stovall, another all-tournament selection, led the Lady Raiders with 22 points and seven rebounds. She talked about the building rivalry with Western with tears glazing her eyes.

“I think the competition is there between the two teams,” she said. “It’s almost like you want to see yourself cutting down those nets.”

One by one, the Lady Toppers climbed a yellow ladder, each cutting an individual lock from the white nylon nets.

The conference season may have ended, but another season was born on Tuesday afternoon.

Cowles said her team divided the season into four sections: pre-conference, conference, conference tournament and the Big Dance.

But they’re by no means happy just to get to the field of 64.

“Our season isn’t over,” Cowles said.”

The men’s and women’s teams will be meeting in Diddle Arena for the NCAA pairings shows on Sunday. The women’s pairings will be announced at 5 p.m. and the men’s will follow at 6 p.m.

Reach J. Michael Moore at [email protected]

MENS BASKEBALL: Tops trail early against MTSU but win big, 64-52

Second-half turnaround.

It is a phrase the hilltoppers can use to sum up both this season and the Sun Belt Conference championship game.

After trailing by as many as 11 points in the first half, Western stormed back with a dominant performance showing why they have won three straight championships.

The defensive-fueled comeback led to a 64-52 win over Middle Tennessee.

The Toppers will now get to go dancing for a third straight season. Their third conference championship earns them an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

“It does feel like a routine for us, I mean it’s been three years now since the last time we didn’t manage to win this thing,” Western coach Dennis Felton said. “But it never gets old because they are so incredibly difficult to win.”

The three-peat seemed far-fetched when the Hilltoppers were 12-8, and still wondering how good they could be if the injury bug hadn’t struck starters Chris Marcus and Todor Pandov.

But, 12 straight victories can make a team forget about their tumultuous beginnings.

The men responsible for this turnaround were visibly ecstatic in the melee following the game.

After the final horn blew, Mike Wells jumped on the scorers table and waved three fingers in the air. Then fellow senior David Boyden jumped on the backboard supports and lead the monstrous student section in a thunderous T-O-P-S, Tops-Tops-Tops cheer.

To cap it all off, the coach that helped bring the program back to its winning ways had his moment with the fans.

Felton cut down the nets and then waved three fingers to the crowd as the students mimicked his swaying arm. He had just accomplished something nobody in Western’s storied history could.

A Sun Belt three-peat.

The post-game celebration may not have happened if it wasn’t for the Toppers stingy and opportunistic defense.

The teams were deadlocked at 23 in the opening of the second half, but that would be the final tie of the game. Western held the Raiders scoreless for the first 5 minutes and 34 seconds of the half. The defensive success ignited their 20-6 run to start the half.

That however would not be MTSU’s final scoring drought. They were later stalled offensively for 2:26 and again for 2:12, which gave the Raiders little hope of staying with the energized Toppers.

“They’re a great team at home and we knew they had a run in them,” MTSU senior William Pippen said. “We went on a little scoring drought and that didn’t help at all.”

MTSU junior Tommy Gunn said that his team needed to play better defensively to stay in the game.

“For us to withstand the environment and their runs we had to bring it defensively, but we didn’t at the start of the second half and they took advantage of that,” he said.

Before his leap onto the scorers table, Wells clearly showed he was the best player on the floor.

He recorded his first career double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds, but his defense was the real difference.

Wells was matched up against the dynamic Gunn. Gunn averages 16.1 a game and was a member of the All-Sun Belt first team. Gunn was a non-factor in the game with Wells holding him to 11 points, eight of which came after Western’s lead had ballooned to 18 points.

“Wells is a good player and he made all-conference team and everything,” Gunn said. “We know he is a good player… and tonight he felt comfortable in front of the fans.”

Wells was helped out by sophomore point guard Patrick Sparks running the show. Sparks scored 12 points, but also dished out seven assists and nabbed five steals.

“I thought again that Patrick did a great job leading us where we needed to go offensively,” Felton said.

Western will find out Sunday were they will be seeded in the NCAA tournament. After losing to Florida and Stanford the past two seasons, the Toppers will look to take the next step and advance into the second round.

It is something this battle-tested team of Hilltoppers think they can accomplish.

“We don’t want a first round beat down,” Sparks said playfully. “I’m very excited.”

Extras

*The championship game marked Felton’s 100th career win as a head coach. He is 100-53 in his five seasons at Western.

“I’m proud just to have kept my job for five years,” Felton joked. “But to already have 100 wins is really something.”

*It also marked both the first time in Sun Belt history that the tournament featured identical match ups and that the men’s and women’s programs from the host school have won both tournament titles. (The Lady Toppers defeated MTSU 86-83 in their final.) For the men, this is the first time since 1991 that the host school has won the Sun Belt tournament.

*The men’s and women’s teams will be meeting in Diddle Arena for the NCAA pairings shows on Sunday. The women’s pairings will be announced at 5 p.m. and the men’s will follow at 6 p.m.

Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]