Greg Collins has said repeatedly from the start of Conference USA play that offense can’t dictate the way his Western Kentucky women’s basketball team plays, and that it must come down to defense and rebounding.

The Lady Toppers showed how well that can work after a slow start at E.A. Diddle Arena on Saturday. WKU picked up the defensive intensity and used a 15-3 run in the final 4:09 of the second quarter to take the lead against Florida International on its way to a 71-51 victory.

“That’s what we’re relying on. The 3-point shots are going to come back around – we’ve got too many good shooters and I keep saying that – but we can’t let that base our effort,” Collins said. “Our effort has to be based on how well we’re doing on the defensive boards and guarding the opponent’s best players and all of those players. I felt like early on we were a little bit sluggish.”

Trailing by five with just over four minutes to go in the first half, Whitney Creech got a steal and missed a transition layup, but Dee Givens was there with the putback for two of her 19 points. On the Panthers’ (5-16 overall, 2-8 C-USA) ensuing possession, Meral Abdelgawad came away with a steal and a layup at the other end to get WKU (14-6, 6-3) within a point.

“The past few games we’ve been just really focusing on defense. We’re struggling on the offensive end hitting shots, so coach Collins said, ‘Hey, you’re still winning games and you’re winning them because you’re rebounding and defending,’ “ said Creech, who finished with 10 points, eight rebounds, four steals and four assists. “We’re coming into every game looking to defend and rebound and to kind of let that create some easy offense for us.”

FIU built its lead back to three with a layup from Jiselle Thomas with 3:32 remaining in the second quarter, but it was the last field goal the Panthers’ would get until the 8:53 mark in the third. The Lady Toppers forced five turnovers in the frame after Thomas’ make, and scored the final five points to close out the 15-3 run taking a 32-25 lead into the break.

WKU forced 21 turnovers in the game and scored 25 of its 71 points that way. The Lady Toppers also outrebounded FIU 43-22 and limited the Panthers to just four offensive rebounds and three second-chance points in what Collins said was probably his team’s best defensive rebounding performance of the season.

“We’ve been known to give up four offensive rebounds to one player in one quarter, so the fact that we allowed four for one team in the whole game, we’ll rank that up high, maybe even number one,” Collins said.

Sherry Porter and Givens were the catalysts in the defense and applied the initial pressure to the FIU ballhandlers. Porter had three steals and nine points when she was forced out of the game due to an injury with 1:32 left in the third. It happened when Alexis Brewer took a charge and landed on her. Porter returned to the bench in the fourth with ice wrapped around her leg, but Collins was unsure of her status immediately following the game.

“Sherry, she’s very quick with her feet and she’s like a little pest on defense. She brings it every day in practice and sometimes she’ll be guarding me in practice and I’ll be like, ‘I don’t want Sherry guarding me,’ or I’ve got to guard her,” Givens said. “She’s just very quick and she knows how to stay in front of the ball and she doesn’t try to do too much.”

By that point, WKU had built its lead to 10 at 47-37. Porter was the one that got the lead to double digits with two free throws. It also started a 9-0 run that gave the Lady Toppers a 54-37 lead at the end of the third. The Lady Toppers outscored FIU a combined 41-23 in the second and third quarters and were 4-for-9 (44.4 percent) from 3-point range during the stretch. WKU entered the game 36-for-172 (20.9 percent) from 3-point range in C-USA play and finished the game 6-for-21 (28.6 percent).

“It’s a step. It’s not like we just jumped up on the table, but it’s a step,” Collins said. “It was good that Alexis saw the ball go in a little bit, Dee saw the ball go in a little bit, so that’s a positive sign.

“I can promise you they’re shooting the ball lights out in practice and shootaround and every day we have practice and shootaround, I think, ‘OK, today’s the day,’ and then we get in the game and I think facilities must be changing the rims when we leave after shootaround because that rim must be smaller. It’ll come back. We’ve got too many experienced young ladies that can shoot the ball for this to go on indefinitely, but, if it does, we’re just going to keep rebounding and guarding.”

Western Kentucky, which built its lead to as many as 25 on a layup from Raneem Elgedawy with 6:34 to play, outscored FIU 17-14 in the fourth to close out the 20-point victory.

Elgedawy recorded her third straight double-double and her 10th of the season with over three minutes to play in the third quarter. She finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds.

The Panthers opened the game with the first four points and held WKU scoreless for the first 4:37, until a layup from Elgedawy got WKU on the board. FIU didn’t allow a turnover in the quarter and was outrebounded 17-6 in the period, but still held a 14-13 advantage heading into the second.

The Panthers built their lead back up to five on a 3-pointer from Thomas just over halfway through the second quarter before WKU went on the 15-3 run. Thomas finished with 11 points, second on the team to Ieva Spigule’s 12. FIU will host Florida Atlantic on Saturday.

The game marked the midway point in C-USA play for WKU, which will hit the road this week for a Thursday game at Louisiana Tech and a Saturday game at Southern Miss, before returning to Diddle, where the Lady Toppers are now a perfect 8-0 this season and have won 10 straight games dating back to last season, for five of the final seven regular-season contests.{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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