The Lady Toppers sent a message to the rest of the Sun Belt Conference Saturday night.
New Mexico State entered the game tied for the Sun Belt West lead but left Diddle Arena with a black eye following an 80-54 drubbing.
Shala Reese led a balanced attack for the Lady Toppers (10-8, 5-2 SBC) scoring 24 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. The senior forward nearly had a perfect shooting night, hitting 10 of 12 from the field and knocking down all four of her free throw attempts.
The Aggies never had much of a chance, as Western jumped to an early 13-3 lead in the first six minutes of the game. New Mexico State turnovers helped spark the early run. Seven of the first 13 Lady Topper points came off Aggie giveaways. Midway through the first half, Western had committed only one turnover compared to the Aggies’ eight.
“We’ve talked all year about how we need to allow our defense to dictate what we do offensively,” coach Mary Taylor Cowles said. “I think tonight was the first time that we understood the importance of defensive intensity right from the tip, and it’s very obvious that it led into our offense and the way we shot the ball.”
The 3-point shooting of Aggie reserve Jenia Dimitrova was the only factor keeping New Mexico State in the game in the first half. Dimitrova nailed all four of her 3-point shots in the first half.
But a 9-0 Western run, capped by a Leslie Logsdon jumper, extended the Lady Topper bulge to 32-13 with 8:30 remaining in the half.
The lone Aggie highlight came with 2:50 left in the first half. With the shot clock reaching zero, guard Mari Sanchez threw up an acrobatic shot that found the bottom of the net, wowing the 1,850 fans in Diddle Arena.
After weathering a late first-half Aggie run, Western went to the locker room shooting 57 percent from the field, touting a 42-28 lead.
“We came out in the first half with the intensity that we talked about, staying focused for 20 minutes,” Reese said. “Then in the second half, even though we were up big, we still came out focused with intensity and we kind of fed on that.”
There was little doubt about the outcome in the second half until New Mexico State went on a 10-1 run that cut the deficit to 66-52 with five minutes, 22 seconds remaining.
Then freshman Tiffany Porter-Talbert took over. The freshman recorded three of her five steals and scored eight of her 12 points following the Aggie run and sealed the deal for the Lady Toppers.
Other double-figure scorers included Logsdon with 19 and senior Kristina Covington with 10. After the game, New Mexico State interim head coach Marlene Stollings gave credit to the atmosphere inside Diddle Arena.
“They have a true home-court advantage here, there is no question about it,” Stollings said. “We don’t play in large crowds very often, and it was a little frightening to our kids who aren’t used to that.”
The Lady Toppers will hit the road this week to take on Florida International Thursday with the Sun Belt East Division lead on the line.
Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]