WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Lady Tops win, face MTSU for title

J. Michael Moore

South Alabama women’s basketball coach Rick Pietri took a glance at the Diddle Arena replay board before his team’s 62-53 loss to Western Kentucky yesterday.

There, written in bold electronic letters, were the “Keys to the game.”

Pietri saw simple advice that, if followed, would lead to victory for the Jaguars and a berth in the Sun Belt conference tournament championship.

Number one: “Don’t get killed on the boards.”

South Alabama didn’t follow.

“We got murdered on the boards,” Pietri said, wiping his forehead. “With the offense we run, we’re not a very good offensive rebounding team anyway.”

The Lady Toppers out rebounded South Alabama 56-34.

The added edge on the glass helped push the Lady Toppers (21-8) into the finals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament against Middle Tennessee at 3 p.m. today in Diddle Arena.

Western tallied 21 offensive rebounds, limiting South Alabama’s chances.

But the Lady Toppers did not perform well on offense, shooting only 35 percent for the game.

Keeping the ball away from the Jaguars and applying strong defensive pressure turned the game around.

“Our defense has definitely been improving,” coach Mary Taylor Cowles said. “I’ve said all along that defense is going to win us the big games.”

And no game was bigger than yesterday’s rematch with South Alabama — one of only two teams that beat the Lady Toppers in conference play.

The Jaguars threw up ten 3-pointers in their 65-61 victory over Western on Jan. 18.

Western has since gone on a 13-game winning streak.

“When we played South Alabama the first time, we were in a little lull,” senior captain Kristina Covington said. “If you play defense and rebound, your offense will click.”

Western entered the game off a 65-53 win over North Texas in the tournament quarterfinals on Saturday.

The Lady Toppers took a 5-point halftime lead over the Jaguars and found themselves in a nip-and-tuck battle for most of the second half.

Then the freshmen awoke.

Freshmen Tiffany Porter-Talbert and Krystal Gardner had two of their best games of the season for Western.

Gardner finished with nine points and 10 rebounds.

Porter-Talbert had 12 points and eight boards.

“We seem to forget that Little Tif is still a freshman,” Covington said.

But it was Gardner that, according to Pietri, sent his team packing for home.

“Western… They’ve got four studs,” Pietri said. “The last time we played them, they had four studs and no additional factor. Krystal Gardner is the X factor. Krystal Gardner was the difference in this game.”

The Jaguars managed to claw back in the closing minutes, cutting into the deficit thanks to Western’s offensive woes.

The Lady Toppers went the final 7 minutes and 21 seconds with only one field goal.

South Alabama (19-10) came as close as two points before Covington hit one of the biggest shots in the Lady Topper’s season.

Western led 53-51 when Covington got the ball in the left corner. Her 3-point shot found nothing but net and preserved victory for the Lady Toppers.

Covington finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds.

Conference Player of the Year Shala Reese had six points and was one of three Lady Toppers with 10 rebounds.

“The whole tournament, we’ve been focusing on getting to the NCAA Tournament,” Covington said. “I was in a slump for, like, 13 games in a row. This is probably the best time to get your shot back.”

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