Laid-back approach reaps wins

J. Michael Moore

The Lady Toppers are cut from a different cloth.

They’re more laid back than other teams, more relaxed.

At the beginning of the season, it gave coach Mary Taylor Cowles fits. She has since stopped worrying.

She’s the Sun Belt Coach of the Year

It happened sometime around Jan. 4, when Cowles’ team was 5-7 and left for dead.

A heightened inner focus began to turn the team around. Western won its next three games, and the team found itself playing for a portion of Sun Belt Conference lead on Jan. 30.

The Lady Toppers beat Florida International that night – a game now seen as a turning point.

And a late-night dinner at a south Florida Denny’s reinforced the tone for this year’s team.

After one of the biggest wins, the team didn’t analyze. The players kept their ease.

Senior captain Kristina Covington remembers the clowning nature of the meal. Nothing but pure fun.

The easygoing nature wasn’t a liability. If anything, it’s an asset.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Covington said. “If you watch other teams, they’re focused. We’re just laid back, at ease and having fun. At tip off, we’re ready to play. We focus on the fun stuff in the game.”

The Lady Toppers (19-8, 12-2) are now winners of 11 straight. The last loss was Jan. 18. But their easy going personality will come into play starting Saturday – their first game in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

Western will play at 1:30 Saturday, facing the winner of Arkansas-Little Rock and North Texas.

Cowles said it doesn’t matter who her team plays – as long as they focus on themselves, and the specifics on defense and offense that they can control.

She never really thought such a laid-back approach could work. Then she looks at her team.

“I think it’s wrong to think as a coach, you can’t learn anything from your team,” Cowles said.

Western is truly in control of its own destiny.

“It all starts with each individual getting ready to play,” she said. “And the team is ready at tip-off.”

While the next game on the schedule is the most important to the Lady Toppers, learning from the past is beneficial to the future.

Covington said an opening game win over Louisiana Tech set her team off on the right foot.

Cowles appreciated the win, but said three wins against Kentucky teams, including Kentucky, Louisville and Murray State are invaluable to the recruiting process. She thinks the team has won the whole state, and can take those bragging rights to perspective Lady Toppers.

Here are some other big games during the Lady Toppers 2002-03 regular-season.

Nov. 23, 2002

Western 71 – La Tech 57

It was the dream start to the Mary Taylor Cowles era.

The Lady Tops controlled the game from the opening tip, putting the No. 10 Lady Techsters away in the season opener.

Western outrebounded Tech and forced their backcourt to beat them from the perimeter. La Tech never recovered from a first half 19-0 run by the Lady Tops.

Dec. 3, 2002

Western 87 – Louisville 67

The Lady Toppers overcame a 15-point deficit against the Cardinals, in what could have been one of the most disappointing losses of the season.

Freshman Tiffany Porter-Talbert scored the first 10 points of the second half on her way to a game-high 23 points.

Dec. 28, 2002 – Jan. 4, 2003

Western Loses Four Straight

It was the turning point to the Lady Toppers season.

Arkansas, Liberty, Tennessee Tech and Middle Tennessee all took advantage of Western during the stretch.

The Lady Toppers averaged 25 turnovers a game.

It was here the squad’s record slipped to 5-7, and the moment Cowles decided her team needed to focus on what it could do to win, not so much on their opponents.

Western has won 14 of its last 15 games.

“At that point of the season, we could have gone either way,” Cowles said. “Nobody quit.”

Jan. 8, 2003

Western 89 – North Texas 85 (OT)

The streak came just minutes from ending, but didn’t.

Instead, the team showed a confidence unmatched in the rest of the season.

And the rematch could be as l ilittle as two days away if North Texas wins in the first round.

Jan. 20, 2003

Western 75 – Florida International 57

Western clinched the first regular-season championship since 1996-97. There were three games left in the season.

March 1, 2003

Western 84 – Middle Tennessee 73

The Lady Toppers capped off the regular season with their 11th straight win.

Covington celebrated senior day along with Jennifer Slaughter, Shala Reese and Tiffiany Diggins.

It didn’t technically mean anything. Both teams had clinched their playoff position. But the momentum the Lady Toppers kept could pay big dividends.

Reach J. Michael Moore at [email protected]