J. Michael Moore

Some felt annoyed. Others, snubbed.

But there it was — the vote that ranked Florida International the favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference.

The class of the league, was in Miami.

The Lady Toppers didn’t see it that way.

It was nothing more than a statement that needed correcting.

Since then, Western (16-8, 10-2 Sun Belt Conference) has emerged as one of the best teams in the league.

The Lady Toppers are riding an eight-game win streak and have chance to sweep the season series with the Golden Panthers at 7 p.m. tonight in Diddle Arena.

A win and the Lady Toppers clinch their first regular season conference crown since 1997 and a first round bye in the conference tournament.

“I don’t think we got any respect when the season started from anybody,” senior forward Shala Reese said. “I don’t think anyone believed we would be in the position we are now. I think the only one that believed in us, was us.”

Western (16-8, 10-2) started proving its worth Jan. 30 by beating the Golden Panthers 80-68 on their own floor.

The Lady Toppers grabbed a tie for the lead in the conference that night which they have yet to relinquish.

“We knew that we weren’t the program we once were and we wanted to be,” Western coach Mary Taylor Cowles said. “The goals that we set out early on in September were things that we thought we could achieve that would take our program back to the next level.

“The goals have pertained to us as a program, not a whole lot of emphasis on what other teams are doing. However, FIU was one of those teams standing in the way of us getting the recognition.”

Tonight, FIU (16-7, 7-3) stands as one of the final walls.

Golden Panther senior guard Mandy Shafer averages a team-leading 15 points per game.

She said her team is focused on a win, not a quest for revenge.

“It plays a lot into our minds, but no matter who we’re playing, we have to win every game,” Shafer said. “(Western) has a varied team. That’s always going to pose a problem. We have to prepare for the whole team.”

The Lady Toppers find themselves in a similar situation.

Shafer is just one threat.

Sophomore forward/center Dace Cinite and senior forward Comisha Cotton’s post play have vaulted their team to the top of conference rebounding statistics.

They also combine to average 24 points a game.

Cotton, the preseason conference player of the year, also averages nine rebounds per game.

In their last meeting, the two teams battled for a 33-33 tie on the boards.

But it’s FIU’s transition game — the ability to get easy baskets — that has Cowles worried.

“(Transition) has been good to us offensively,” Cowles said. “FIU relies on it so much that we have to make sure defensively we get back on transition.”

Western has also worked the week on getting healthy.

Senior guard Kristina Covington has been battling a bacterial infection in her stomach.

Reese is getting over a twisted ankle she experienced Jan. 8 against North Texas.

Junior forward Leah Lineberry is fighting an injured foot.

Junior guard Elisha Ford was forced to miss the North Texas game due to bronchitis, but played in the last two Lady Topper victories.

Covington said the team is not completely healthy, but at one of its best levels since the win streak began. She also stresses her team’s drive to better itself more than worrying about their opponent.

“FIU has always been the same,” Covington said. “They always have a really good post. I think the main thing why we’re on this big run is that we’re not worried about what the other teams are doing, but worrying about what we need to do as a team.”

Repeating the magic from the last meeting may be the easiest way for Western to get a second victory.

Tiffany Porter-Talbert had one of her best games of the year in Miami, scoring 23 points.

The team also tallied a season-low eight turnovers.

Cowles said protecting the basketball and transition defense are important. And a little help from the Diddle Arena fans couldn’t hurt.

“I think it’s going to be whoever takes care of the basketball and limits the other team to one shot,” she said. “I think (playing at home) is huge. I think a lot of teams that we play aren’t used to having the type fan support that we have.

“I would love to get as many students as we can in the stands as well as our local community members to help the Lady Toppers get this win.”

Reach J. Michael Moore at [email protected]