WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Lady Tops cap off regular season

J. Michael Moore

From 5-7 to a 19-8 record, the Lady Toppers have been through the gauntlet.

Western has flourished, and capped off a crazy regular season Saturday night with an 84-73 victory over Middle Tennessee.

It’s the 11th-straight win for Mary Taylor Cowles and company and it comes to the delight of four seniors — Jennifer Slaughter, Kristina Covington, Shala Reese and Tiffiany Diggins — who didn’t let their spotlight get invaded by the Lady Raiders.

For Covington, the plan for the Saturday’s Senior Night was simple and successful.

“We wanted a victory and we wanted our family here,” she said of the team and the seniors who were honored before tipoff. “And we all got our family here and we got the victory.”

But it wasn’t all smiles in the first half.

Middle Tennessee (16-11, 9-5) defeated Western to open the conference season on Jan. 4. and was not keen on splitting the season series.

Western didn’t pull away until the 7:45 mark of the second half. MTSU was down 66-63 when a Reese layup sparked a game ending 20-10 run by the Lady Toppers.

“Obviously, we would have liked to have won today,” MTSU coach Stephany Smith said. “Western has been playing awfully well the last 10 basketball games.

“I don’t think anyone other than the people sitting on our bench and in our locker room thought we had a prayer of not getting blown out. I thought we gave them as much as they could stand for a pretty large majority of the game.”

Slaughter started the Lady Toppers off with five-straight points to open the game. Western went on to take a 47-42 lead into the locker room.

The Lady Raiders answered with a 17-2 run in the second half to take a 61-60 lead with 10 minutes to play.

During the run, Cowles called a timeout.

Western was out of the loop.

“That might have been one of those moments I didn’t know what to say as a head coach,” Cowles said of the timeout. “I asked them ‘you tell me what to do offensively.’ I hadn’t called everything in our offensive play book, but I called just about everything I thought would work and we got no response.”

The Lady Toppers responded, recapturing the lead on a Reese layup and never looking back.

Lady Raider forward Tia Stovall, who ignited her team with 16 points in the first half, was held to only one field goal in the second 20 minutes. She finished with a game-high 20 points.

Topper freshman Tiffany Porter-Talbert led Western with 19 points.

Covington finished with 18 points. Reese added 15 points and nine rebounds, just one board away from her 15th double-double of the season.

A lackluster effort on the boards put the Lady Raiders out of the game in the closing minutes, exemplified by a Western possession, where three different Lady Toppers had looks at the basket.

Freshman forward Krystal Gardner finally put the ball in after five separate chances coming off offensive rebounds.

“I don’t think we did a good job boxing out the entire game,” Smith said. “That’s where they got most of their points. When they missed a couple, that’s where we needed to take advantage.”

Cowles and the Lady Toppers (19-8, 12-2) will play at 1:30 Saturday afternoon in the second round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

The Lady Toppers received a first round bye after winning the Sun Belt regular season title.

Reach J. Michael Moore at [email protected]