WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Lady Tops fall in NCAA first round

J. Michael Moore

By J. Michael Moore

Herald reporter

ATHENS, Ga. -–

Tears pushed away smiles.

Most of the Lady Toppers set motionless in their shoes yesterday afternoon, looking down at the ground, moving their heads only with the occasional sniffle.

A Western basketball season filled with new beginnings – a new coach and a new attitude – came to an end yesterday.

The Lady Toppers fell 64-52 to Rutgers in the opening round of the NCAA Midwest Region in Athens, Ga.

It was a difficult road for the Lady Toppers yesterday, who found themselves down nine just two minutes into the game.

But they battled back.

Western (22-9) started the second half on a 15-3 run, taking a four point lead with 11 minutes and 22 seconds to play, but eventually faltered in the face of intense defensive pressure.

The Scarlet Knights (21-7) went over seven minutes without a basket in the second half before awaking to retake the lead.

The Lady Toppers’ first-year head coach Mary Taylor 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. “I really do believe the foundation has been laid, and I think that is a credit to our four seniors… Western Kentucky women’s basketball is definitely on the right track and headed in the right direction. For the players that are returning, I’m really excited for Lady Topper basketball.”

Tiffiany Diggins, Shala Reese, Kristina Covington and Jennifer Slaughter, all seniors, played their last game in a Lady Topper uniform yesterday.

Western was out rebounded 44-33 in the game – an uncharacteristic number for the Lady Toppers, who had been beat on the glass only six times during the season.

“We didn’t put a body on people,” freshman guard Tiffany Porter-Talbert said. “We’re known for out rebounding our opponents.”

Reese, the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, was pleased with her team in the opening minutes of the second half. Western became comfortable in a zone defense in the absence of Rutgers’ All-Big East Conference point guard Cappie Pondexter.

But when it comes to rebounding, she questioned intensity.

“Tonight it was just a matter of who wanted the ball better,” Reese said.

She finished with 10 points.

Junior guard Leslie Logsdon added a team-high 13-points.

Rutgers got 15 second chance points, to Western’s six. Combine that with a less-than-stellar shooting night (38.2- percent) and the Lady Toppers got in more trouble.

“I think our focus level when the ball was tipped was not where (that of) an NCAA championship needs to be,” Cowles said. “Rebounding wins championships. Period. That was the difference in tonight’s game.”

Western also struggled from the perimeter, going 3-for-16 from behind the arc.

Rutgers re-took the lead with 8:58 to play on a three-point basket by sophomore guard Chelsea Newton.

Newton hit again 36 seconds later, nailing a three from the right corner.

The shots were part of an 11-0 Rutgers run.

The Scarlet Knights regained the momentum and never looked back.

“The shots that Chelsea threw down were big shots,” Pondexter said. “It gave us the momentum back and we went from there. We had a couple of miscues on the defensive end that let them back in the game. Toward the end, we focused more on getting stops.”

Pondexter, one of the best point guards in the nation came up big again for the Scarlet Knights, finishing with 21 points, 10 rebounds and six steals.

Cowles said Pondexter is one of the top-five guards in the country.

“She’s tremendous,” Cowles said. “She is absolutely phenomenal. She’s the best guard we’ve played against this year.”

But it was Pondexter and the Scarlet Knight’s defensive pressure kept the Lady Toppers down.

Rutgers’ coach C. Vivian Stringer said pressure may have got to her team in for some stretches, noting that Western, being the 13-seed, was the underdog and had no pressure.

“I’m glad that it’s over,” Stringer said. “I’m glad that we won.”