WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Logsdon scores 32 as Lady Tops beat MTSU in nail biter

J. Michael Moore

Kristina Covington looked like a proud mother.

The Sun Belt Conference championship trophy was her fragile child.

Minutes after Western won its first conference tournament championship in eight years, Covington scooped up the hardware and cradled it in her arms.

A red Sun Belt championship hat set loosely on top of her braids.

A piece of the Diddle Arena nets was tucked safely behind the her ear.

The wait was finally over.

The Lady Toppers were champions again.

Tuesday’s 86-83 victory over Middle Tennessee also gives the Lady Toppers a place in the 64-team NCAA tournament.

“Reaching the NCAA tournament of 64 is unbelievable,” Western coach Mary Taylor Cowles said. “It’s that heightened goal that so many teams are trying to achieve and we did it.”

Western “did it” despite falling to 5-7 early in the season.

Cowles’ squad responded to finish 22-8.

The Lady Toppers will ride a 14-game winning streak into the tournament.

Brackets will be announced Sunday at 5 p.m.

“Every year I set a goal to win the Sun Belt Conference championship,” Covington said, the trophy sitting closely by her side. “I just wish I could be here three or four more years.”

The heat and passion of Tuesday had all the makings of a NCAA tourney game.

The Lady Toppers won with their back court shooting.

Junior guard Leslie Logsdon was feeling it.

She drained a school record eight 3-pointers on her way to 30 points — in the first half.

Logsdon said she’s had trouble with her shots. But a brief session with Cowles before the game built up her confidence.

Fifteen minutes of shooting made the difference.

“I haven’t been getting a lot of good shots lately,” she said. “They left me open, so I just kept shooting the ball.”

Logsdon finished with a game and career high 32 points but found her second half performance stifled by MTSU’s Ciara Gray.

Logsdon single handedly kept the Lady Toppers in the game in the first 20 minutes.

Her teammates combined for only 10 points in the first half.

“Though she had a 30-point performance and they had 10 three point baskets in the first half, they didn’t take the win out of us.”

A 6-3 run after halftime pushed the Lady Toppers to a 50-37 lead.

But with Logsdon’s hot streak ending, MTSU made a run of its own on the court and the stat sheet.

The Lady Raiders out rebounded and outshot Western, finishing the game with a 52.5 percent shooting percentage and outscoring the Lady Toppers 49-42 in the second half.

MTSU took a 61-60 lead with 10 minutes to play. The Lady Raiders took another one point lead with five minutes remaining.

Logsdon’s frustrations turned into fouls, placing her on the bench and leaving other Lady Toppers to step up.

Freshmen Tiffany Porter-Talbert and Krystal Gardner didn’t blink.

The duo combined for 10 points in the final 10 minutes.

Porter-Talbert hit several shots to answer buckets, finishing the game with 12 points.

She joins Covington and Logsdon as all-tournament team selections.

Player of the Year Shala Reese busted out of her tournament woes by scoring 15 points, most coming in Western’s final run.

“Shala knew that we needed her,” Cowles said. “When the going got tough, guess who wanted the basketball.”

But it was Covington, the senior captain, who hammered the final nails into the coffin.

She scored her team’s final four points, including a three from the right wing to put Western up five with a minute to play.

She finished with 18 points.

MTSU’s Patrice Holmes, the tournament’s most outstanding player, answered with three points on the follow possession, but time was wearing thin.

Even a premature launching of celebration confetti with a tenth of a second left couldn’t limit the Lady Topper elation.

Or the Lady Raider dejection.

Tears were in both team’s eyes, but Smith could do nothing but scratch her head.

“Maybe it was the second time playing in the environment,” Smith said when asked what was the difference when her team held the statistical edge. “What a great basketball school. We’re still so young.

“We never wanted to quit and we didn’t.”

Freshman forward Tia Stovall, another all-tournament selection, led the Lady Raiders with 22 points and seven rebounds. She talked about the building rivalry with Western with tears glazing her eyes.

“I think the competition is there between the two teams,” she said. “It’s almost like you want to see yourself cutting down those nets.”

One by one, the Lady Toppers climbed a yellow ladder, each cutting an individual lock from the white nylon nets.

The conference season may have ended, but another season was born on Tuesday afternoon.

Cowles said her team divided the season into four sections: pre-conference, conference, conference tournament and the Big Dance.

But they’re by no means happy just to get to the field of 64.

“Our season isn’t over,” Cowles said.”

The men’s and women’s teams will be meeting in Diddle Arena for the NCAA pairings shows on Sunday. The women’s pairings will be announced at 5 p.m. and the men’s will follow at 6 p.m.

Reach J. Michael Moore at [email protected]