WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: Lady Tops clinch Sun Belt

J. Michael Moore

Perhaps the best compliment the Lady Toppers received after last night’s 75-57 victory over Florida International came from the stands.

It wasn’t from the coaching staff, players or media.

What caught Western coach Mary Taylor Cowles’ attention were words from an unnamed fan who stopped her after the game.

“He told me how much he enjoyed watching our team because they always play as a team,” Cowles said after the win, which put her Lady Toppers atop the Sun Belt Conference — clinching their first regular season championship since 1997.

And teamwork played a major roll.

Western (17-8, 11-2) tallied 23 assists in the game, many coming on fast breaks that ignited the crowd and bench.

The Lady Toppers never trailed in the game, busting out an 8-0 run to open the game and took control with a 13-0 run in the first four minutes of the second half.

FIU (16-8, 7-4) trailed 48-30 with 16:11 left in the game and never recovered. The Golden Panthers were the favorite to win the Sun Belt at the beginning of the season and have continued to receive recognition in polls.

Western has now beaten the Golden Panthers twice and, with a regular-season conference championship, finds itself seeking the same respect.

“I think we’ve been yelling loud all season,” senior forward Shala Reese said. “But nobody has been listening to us. I don’t think (FIU) ever recovered from tip-off.”

Reese finished with a game-high 24 points.

Junior Leslie Logsdon added 19 while senior Kirstina Covington scored 14 points

Covington is now nine points from 1,000 in her career.

FIU senior guard Mandy Shafer managed 21 points in a half-court set, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Lady Toppers shooting.

FIU’s Cormisha Cotton finished with 16 points.

Western finished the game shooting 49 percent from the field, 50 percent in the second half. FIU went just 8-for-32 in the final 20 minutes.

The Lady Toppers will host Chicago State at 7 p.m. Monday before closing the season with Middle Tennessee next Saturday.

With yesterday’s win, Western clinched the number one seed in the conference’s eastern division.

They will get a first-round bye in the conference tournament, which begins March 6 in Diddle Arena.