The Western Kentucky women’s basketball team provided Middle Tennessee with too many opportunities Saturday, and the streak continues.
The Lady Toppers (20-9, 13-7 Sun Belt Conference) surrendered 15 offensive rebounds and 14 second-chance points to MTSU, falling 71-54 in the regular-season finale in front of 1,887 fans at E.A. Diddle Arena.
The loss was WKU’s 12th straight to the Lady Raiders dating back to 2008.
“We talk about it every day in practice,” sophomore guard Alexis Govan said. “We say we’ve got to box out on the defensive boards and we’ve got to get 50-50 balls. Today, we didn’t do that, and that’s a gamechanger.”
WKU will be the No. 3 seed in this week’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Hot Springs, Ark. The Lady Tops will play the winner of No. 6 North Texas and No. 11 Louisiana-Lafayette at 2 p.m. Saturday in the quarterfinals.
MTSU (22-7, 17-3), which will be the tournament’s top seed, shot 60 percent in the second half Saturday.
The Lady Toppers couldn’t contain junior forward Ebony Rowe, who finished with game highs of 25 points and 14 rebounds.
The Lady Raiders also got 16 points and seven rebounds from senior forward Icelyn Elie, and 18 points and four steals from senior guard Kortni Jones.
“That was key going into this game,” Elie said of MTSU’s rebounding. “That was what was going to keep us in the game. They’ve got (sophomore forward Chastity) Gooch down there battling for everybody rebound, but boxing out and going to get the boards was our main thing today.”
WKU opened an early lead as the Lady Raiders started 1 of 10 from the floor.
A jumper by Jones gave MTSU its first lead at 14-12 with 11:10 left in the first half, and the Lady Raiders extended their advantage to 27-23 at halftime despite shooting 28.1 percent from the floor.
“They hit 17 3s in the last game against Troy, so our main focus was to try to take the 3 away and make sure (Jones) didn’t get 30 on us again,” WKU coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “I was really proud of our group in the first half. We had missed some offensive rebounds, but we were right in the ballgame. The things we wanted to do in the first half, we did.”
The teams started a combined 9 of 13 from the field in the second half, but the Lady Tops hit a road block when Gooch picked up her fourth foul with 12:28 left and WKU down 39-36.
Gooch was whistled for two fouls in less than a minute, and the second was a push from behind as Rowe attacked the basket.
“My fourth foul was just kind of out of frustration,” Gooch said. “It was a stupid foul. I worked hard posting up, and I was trying to not let Ebony get the ball. She can do a lot of moves, so it’s hard to determine what she’s about to do.
“Getting between her and the basket is about all you can do.”
Rowe had 16 points and nine rebounds in the second half, but it was Jones who closed the deal with a torrid finish.
The senior guard had two points on 1 of 12 shooting at the media timeout with 7:52 left, but made six of her final nine shots and scored 16 points the rest of the way as MTSU pulled away with a 22-10 run to end the game.
“Kortni is just a fantastic young lady,” MTSU coach Rick Insell said. “She’s got her own way of doing things. Sometimes, when she does it her way, it works out, and that’s bad usually. ... She’s unstoppable when she wants to be unstoppable.”
WKU shot 39.6 percent from the floor with 18 turnovers.
Sophomore guard Alexis Govan had 14 points and 10 rebounds, but made 4 of 16 shots with seven turnovers. She had two points in the first half.
“Honestly, in the first half, what they were doing worked,” Govan said. “They let me get a little frustrated, but in the second half, I knew I couldn’t let Chastity and my teammates do it themselves. I missed a lot of shots, but I just tried to bring energy and play defense.”
Gooch finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and three steals. She logged her 23rd double-double of the season, breaking ShaRae Mansfield’s WKU record set in 1999-2000.
Freshman guard Micah Jones chipped in 11 points, and junior guard Bianca McGee had six points and a career-high five assists.
MTSU netted 20 of 27 free throws, while WKU made 9 of 13 from the charity stripe.
The Lady Raiders got at least three rebounds from five players, including six points and three boards in 10 minutes from junior reserve KeKe Stewart. Rowe grabbed seven offensive rebounds.
“That’s what championship teams are supposed to do – put yourself in position to get one of those rebounds and finish it,” Insell said. “Ebony and KeKe were able to do that. ... KeKe is probably one of the best post players in the country that people don’t know about. When she gets the basketball, she can finish.”
The Lady Toppers have lost back-to-back games for the second time this season. The first losing streak came in January with setbacks at South Alabama and MTSU.
WKU has gone 9-6 since January after starting 11-3, but the players aren’t running out of gas, Govan said.
“We’re definitely capable,” she said “We’re a young team, and we’re in the best shape we’ve been in a long time. It’s not the physical body being tired, but mentally we have to push through.
“Coach is going to get us prepared, and mentally, we’ll be able to hold on that last five minutes.”