Reese hungers for chance at conference crown

J. Michael Moore

Few noticed anything was wrong.

It wasn’t until replay boards revived the horror that thousands of fans gasped in shock and concern.

You could hear the crowd breathe.

With 4 minutes, 35 seconds left in Saturday’s 84-73 victory over Middle Tennessee State, Lady Topper senior Shala Reese hit the floor hard.

She was tipping a rebound to fellow senior Kristina Covington when she fell, hitting her right temple on the floor.

She turned on her back and covered her face.

A few tense moments later Reese was helped to her feet. Then she staggered to a seat on the bench.

A few moments after that, she was laughing and checking in at the scorer’s table.

Covington said later that Reese should change her major to acting. But Reese doesn’t want an Oscar.

She wants to succeed and take basketball beyond graduation.

This is Shala Reese.

The Easton, Texas, native is overcoming adversity on the court and shocking the Sun Belt Conference.

She was the Sun Belt’s Newcomer of the Year a season ago. Saturday, she takes her show into the conference tournament in front of the Diddle Arena crowd.

She earned more recognition yesterday by being named Conference Player of the Year.

But Reese isn’t caught up in hype.

All she needs is basketball — with a side of cheddar cheese Doritos and Mountain Dew.

A dietitian’s nightmare

“She loves ESPN, and she eats Doritos all the time,” teammate Tiffiany Diggins said of her friend.

Diggins transferred to Western with Reese from Central Arizona Community College before the 2001-2002 season.

Reese said she doesn’t dine exclusively on junk food.

She just snacks when she’s not hungry.

“(Tiffiany) pretty much summed it up,” Reese said. “I think I’ve gotten in more trouble for eating Doritos than anything else. Sometimes you’re just not hungry, so you just snack.

“I think I’m a little bit more than that, but to sum it up in a few words, I guess that’s it.”

At 6-1, she’ll never be the biggest player on the floor. But Reese still averages 16.4 points and nine rebounds per contest.

Her 58 percent field goal percentage is the best in the league — a full ten percentage points from the nearest challenger.

She is second in scoring behind her teammate, junior guard Leslie Logsdon. Reese is tied for second in overall rebounding and is first on the offensive glass.

“I can’t go out there and grow four inches,” Reese said. “I’ve been having disadvantages with height so long I’ve forgotten about it.

“Size isn’t a factor. My biggest problem is I can’t let the other player get in my head and get me out of my game.”

Keeping her head will be a major asset if the Lady Toppers make a run in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

Western got a first-round bye in the tournament and will tip off against the winner of Arkansas-Little Rock and North Texas at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.

It’s the national showcase that could put Reese in the driver’s seat for Player of the Year and determine her future in basketball.

In the paint

Reese’s transfer to Western left her with only two years of eligibility.

Last season was solid, but it was also marred by the Lady Toppers’ well-documented coaching clamor. This season has been more consistent.

Reese said she questioned choosing Western last season, but after this season, the Hill feels like the right fit.

She and Diggins visited Western together. Her other options were all in Texas.

Western was the last of five official visits.

Reese didn’t feel good about any of them, until she left Bowling Green.

“I went on four recruiting trips, and after every trip I’d come back and say I just didn’t feel it,” Reese said. “On the way home, I was like, I’m signing with Western.”

She’s glad she did.

And so is her coach.

“Any time you bring a junior college recruit in, it seems like you blink your eyes and they’re graduating,” Cowles said. “I’ve been so pleased with her play.”

She said Reese’s knowledge of the game would benefit her at the next level and make up for any size disadvantage.

Cowles said Reese plays where she’s most effective and wouldn’t need to switch to a position on the wing.

Reese knows that she has to make the best of this year and keep improving to expand her future and meet expectations — both fans’ and her own.

There are jokes at practice. Maybe Reese is the post player trapped in a guard’s body, but she does have a jumper.

Dribbling would be the only addition to her resume if she switched to the wing.

Life and basketball

Middle Tennessee guard Patrice Holmes was named conference Player of the Week on Feb. 10. She averaged 19 points in games against North Texas and Denver.

Reese scored 30 and 31 points in the same week, against the same opponents, breaking a career high in two straight games.

Sometimes she feels snubbed.

“You kind of get that feeling, but it doesn’t stop you from going out and playing,” Reese said. “My teammates and my coaches were more mad than I was. For them to be that upset that I didn’t win shows that they have a lot of confidence in me. That just makes me want to go out and play harder.”

When game time comes Saturday, Reese will need all the mental edge she can get.

Her teammates have the confidence.

“I think she’ll step up to the challenge,” Diggins said. “Tournament time and game time, it doesn’t make much difference to her. When the clock starts, that’s when she’s ready to play.”

If she doesn’t bump her head.

Reach J. Michael Moore at [email protected]