WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Cowles says first year a success

J. Michael Moore

The Lady Toppers used Georgia’s locker room at the NCAA Regional in Athens, Ga., March 22.

They dressed in the same room as one of the great Southeastern Conference teams.

They walked down the same tunnel, below a sign reading:

“Through here walks the next NCAA Champion. Feels pretty good, huh?”

The walk out to the court felt great.

But the walk back to the locker room was a little less than perfect.

Western lost to Rutgers in the opening round, 64-52, ending a turnaround and odd-beating season.

Western finished 22-9, erasing any embarrassment or fear from last season’s 16-14 campaign.

But that doesn’t mean Western was happy with the loss.

Rutgers out rebounded the Lady Toppers.

It was only the sixth time Western had been outdone on the boards during the season, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

Western took the lead in the second half against the Scarlet Knights but fell at the hands of intense defensive pressure.

Thoughts immediately turned to revenge: a repeat as Sun Belt Conference champions and a return trip to the Big Dance.

Junior guard Leslie Logsdon said the team may have been nervous, considering they haven’t been in the NCAA tournament in three seasons.

But she also looks forward to next year.

Logsdon, the Sun Belt Conference’s leading scorer, and freshman guard Tiffany Porter-Talbert represent two of the Lady Toppers’ top four scorers.

Cowles said the game will be added to her team’s building foundation.

Even if it is hard to accept defeat.

“I really don’t want to think about it right now,” Cowles said after the team’s final game. “I really do believe the foundation has been laid, and I think that is a credit to our four seniors.”

Seniors Kristina Covington, Shala Reese, Tiffiany Diggins and Jennifer Slaughter have now played their final game in a Western uniform.

The team had to overcome sadness and frustration after the NCAA loss, but Cowles thinks any ill feelings are past.

She is meeting with every player this week and between recruiting and picking new captains, there hasn’t been much time to dwell on the loss.

“Well into the week, we probably all just took a deep breath and took a sigh of regrouping, maybe for ourselves, both mentally and physically,” Cowles said. “I was exhausted, and I didn’t play a single minute of the game.”

Next season will be a youth movement.

Leah Lineberry, Elisha Ford and Leslie Logsdon will be seniors. Porter-Talbert and Krystal Gardner will be the only sophomores.

Junior point guard Camryn Whitaker is also expected to return after sitting out this season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

The rest are freshman.

Natalie Benton, a 6-foot-2 post player from Global Studies High School in Brooklyn, averaged 24 points and 10 rebounds per game last season.

The Lady Toppers have also enlisted the services of Lakewood, Calif., native Cacie Pope.

Pope is a 6-foot-1 post player who averaged 18 points and nine rebounds per game to lead her school to the state championship last season.

Amber Holt, a 5-foot-11 guard, rounded out Western’s early commitments. Holt averaged 20 points per game at Meadowcreek High in Lilburn, Ga., and was named a Street and Smith honorable mention All-American.

Cowles has said all three have the right athleticism to help the Lady Toppers as freshman and – with the graduation of Shala Reese and Tiffiany Diggins – fill vacancies in the post game.

Western is also looking to add some depth in the spring signing period, which begins April 16.

Cowles said she doesn’t have a set number of signings to expect, but the process will be tedious.

She and other coaches will not abandon talent or character just to add depth to the roster.

“The transition has already been made,” Cowles said. “As good as the year was and as great as we feel about what we were able to achieve, the year’s over. Recruiting is never ending.”

She said the reception from fans has been strong, especially at the Kentucky high school girls’ basketball championships held in Diddle Arena last week.

“The buzz has been very positive,” she said. “I really truly feel that we’re headed in the right direction.”

Season-ending banquet

The Lady Toppers will officially close out the 2002-2003 season at the team banquet April 22 in the Diddle Arena auxiliary gym.

For more information on attending, call the women’s basketball office at 745-2133.

Reach J.Michael Moore at [email protected]