Lady Toppers win 88-64 over Lee University

Western Kentucky Lady Toppers won 88-64 over Lee University on Friday, Dec. 29, 2017, at E.A. Diddle Arena. (Austin Anthony/photo@bgdailynews.com)

The defending Conference USA champions begin their quest to repeat winning that crown by playing against the one team picked to finish ahead of them in the preseason poll.

Although preseason rankings mean nothing, it does help that the first conference opponent is Western Kentucky’s biggest rival.

“It’s Middle,” WKU coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “We talk about this all the time, and we don’t have to get them pumped up and ready to play against Middle and we shouldn’t have to get them pumped up to play against anyone.”

WKU’s first game of 2018 will be the 71st meeting against Middle Tennessee on Thursday night at 7 p.m. at E.A. Diddle Arena.

Middle Tennessee (8-5) was picked before the season as the league favorite despite WKU (9-4) gaining an 8-6 edge in first-place votes. WKU has won two of the last three C-USA Tournaments, while MTSU has claimed two C-USA tournament crowns since 2014.

“It’ll be a good challenge for the team to open up the conference against a good team and our rival team,” WKU sophomore Whitney Creech said. “It’ll be a good test for us to see where we’re at.”

WKU has won three straight over MTSU and has the chance to make it four in a row Thursday night for the first time since the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

The Lady Toppers wrapped up nonconference play with an 88-64 win over Lee University on Dec. 29 and a 3-1 record at home. The only loss was a 78-65 decision to Notre Dame, which came in the middle of a Power 5 schedule to open the year that now has WKU at No. 33 in the RPI.

WKU is the only C-USA team ranked in the top 100 in the women’s RPI with MTSU posting the second-best mark in the league at 112.

The Lady Raiders’ resume includes their most recent 62-57 win over Kentucky and a season-opening win at Vanderbilt. No. 4 Louisville routed MTSU 80-26 in early December and Georgia Tech held off the Lady Raiders 48-45 on Dec. 3.

Injuries have plagued MTSU all season, but depth and timing has helped it reach that 8-5 mark in the nonconference slate despite not having all five of its usual starters at any point this year. Preseason C-USA Player of the Year Alex Johnson and Kyla Allison have each missed seven games with foot injuries and Abbey Sissom missed three games with a concussion.

Sissom has rallied to average 24 points and five 3-pointers over the last three games.

“We haven’t been healthy,” MTSU coach Rick Insell told the Daily News Wednesday in a phone interview. “I’m proud of what our kids have accomplished. We’ve done this with kids we didn’t expect to be going into the season and starting. I’ve been proud of our young ladies, to be honest.”

Insell said the first conference game of the year against WKU will serve as a feeler for how the next game will be played. The Hall of Fame coach said it’s possible the rivalry could continue into the conference tournament to determine a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

However, in WKU’s previous three years in the league, the two teams have not met in the conference tournament. The Lady Toppers haven’t played MTSU in a conference tournament since playing in the Sun Belt Conference in 2012.

“I think the game is important in the fact you have the two teams voted 1 and 2,” Insell said. “Whoever wins the game will get a game up, that’s for sure. What’s more important is we’re probably going to have to play one another to get into the NCAA Tournament or to get in the (C-USA Tournament) finals. I think it’s more important that you break the code and figure out each team. You’re able to track defenses and track the offenses and your evaluations you have coming out of that game.

“Myself, I’m looking long range and I would say Michelle also. We both want to win, but if you had to look at what’s in front of you, both of us would swap this game tomorrow night and the other game at Middle Tennessee for that last game.”

Heard said Wednesday that her team will embrace starting the C-USA slate at home, considering that nine of WKU’s 13 games were played away from E.A. Diddle Arena. The Lady Toppers went 9-0 last year at home in C-USA play.

“Conference starts out and you don’t know what to expect,” Heard said. “That’s one reason I’m excited we’re starting here at home. We’ve been on the road a lot and I think we’re very road-tested. I just think we’ll be ready to handle whatever challenge is thrown at us.”

Probable starters

Western Kentucky – Tashia Brown, f, 6-1, sr. (23.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg); Whitney Creech, g, 5-8, so. (9.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg); Ivy Brown, f, 6-1, sr. (15.4 ppg, 9.8 rpg); Sidnee Bopp, g, 5-6, jr. (6.3 ppg, 1.8 apg); Raneem Elgedawy, f, 6-4, fr. (9.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg)

Middle Tennessee – Abbey Sissom, g, 5-9, sr. (14.6 ppg, 1.9 rpg); Jess Louro, g, 5-10, jr. (10.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg); Katie Collier, g, 5-10, jr. (2.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg); Gabby Lyon, f, 6-0, sr. (5.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg); Rebecca Reuter, f, 6-4, sr. (9.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg)

Television – WKU PBS, Fox College Sports

Radio ESPN 102.7 FM or 1450 AM

Coaches Michelle Clark-Heard (139-43 sixth year; 163-75 overall), Western Kentucky; Rick Insell (307-102 13th year; 307-102 overall) Middle Tennessee.

Series Record Middle Tennessee leads 41-29 (WKU won the last meeting 82-75 on Feb. 16, 2017).

Last time out Western Kentucky won 88-64 against Lee University on Friday; Middle Tennessee won 62-57 against Kentucky on Dec. 28.{&end}

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Covering the Western Kentucky University athletics beat for the Bowling Green Daily News.