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Western Kentucky sophomore guard Meral Abdelgawad attempts to move past Oklahoma junior guard Ana Llanusa during WKU’s 74-63 win against Oklahoma on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, at E. A. Diddle Arena. (Grace Ramey/photo@bgdailynews.com)

Western Kentucky’s Conference USA opener against North Texas didn’t end the way the team – and many others – expected.

The Lady Toppers, who were tabbed to finish third in C-USA before the season began and finished nonconference play with the best RPI of any team in the conference, trailed by as many as 19 points in the second half Thursday at The Super Pit and saw a late comeback attempt come up short against the Mean Green, who were picked seventh in the C-USA preseason poll.

WKU will get another chance in Texas to get its first conference win of the season when it takes on Rice, the defending conference champion and preseason favorite, in a 2 p.m. game Saturday at Tudor Fieldhouse.

“Rice, I know their win-loss record is not as strong as it was at this point last year, but they’ve played an incredibly difficult schedule,” WKU coach Greg Collins said in a phone interview with the Daily News on Tuesday. “They’ve played Texas A&M, they just played Georgia Tech and played them tough, they’ve played Virginia Tech, before that was SMU – they’ve played some really, really good teams. They still have the Defensive Player of the Year and the preseason Player of the Year on that team, so I think they’re still the team to beat.”

Rice (6-6 overall, 1-0 C-USA) is coming off an 81-43 victory over Marshall on Thursday to open conference play. The Owls have averaged 61.8 points per game and allowed 54.1 through 12 games. They returned four starters from last year’s championship team, including conference Player of the Year Erica Ogwumike and Defensive Player of the Year Nancy Mulkey. Ogwumike is averaging 15.6 points and 8.8 rebounds and Mulkey adds 9.4 points and 4.6 rebounds. Lauren Schwartz, a member of last year’s KHSAA Sweet Sixteen championship team at Ryle, is third on the team in scoring at 8.7 points per game.

The all-time series between the programs is tied 3-all, but the Owls have won three straight meetings and haven’t lost a game to a C-USA opponent since falling 67-55 to UAB in the 2018 conference semifinals. Rice beat WKU 64-57 in last year’s C-USA semifinals.

The Lady Toppers’ loss Thursday was the program’s first ever in a C-USA opener after winning the previous five. WKU (8-4, 0-1) trailed by 19 with 1:33 to play in the third quarter before rallying to make it a four-point game with 2:38 remaining, before eventually falling 61-54. North Texas won the rebounding battle 53-39, led by 23 from Charlene Shepherd. Rice has outrebounded opponents by an average of 3.2 this season.

Raneem Elgedawy, Whitney Creech and Dee Givens – WKU’s three leading scorers entering conference play – had 15, nine and 10 points in the loss, respectively. The Lady Toppers made just two of the 19 3-pointers they attempted, while North Texas went 10-of-21 from beyond the arc, including making a combined 9-of-11 in the second and third quarters after coming in ranked 342nd of 348 teams in the country in 3-point shooting. The Owls shoot 28.3 percent from 3-point range.

“It’s frustrating, it’s irritating, it’s aggravating because we work and work and work and we stress defensive rebounding and boxing out and we get in a game and they still don’t want to box out,” Collins said after the game on the ESPN 102.7 FM and 1450 AM broadcast. “The shot goes up and we walk to the rim and the ball goes over our heads and the other players fly to the ball and get rebounds.

“Until we change our attitude about boxing out and making sure we end a possession with a defensive board – and the other part is guarding the 3-point line. We had several players give up multiple 3s and stopping short on a lazy close out instead of getting out there and making the ball come down. We’ve worked and worked on those things, we’ve watched film and we stress it, but at some point they’ve got to do it, and until they do it, we’re not going to be very good.”

Saturday’s game marks the end of a five-game road stretch for WKU. The Lady Toppers will follow the trip to Texas with a Jan. 9 game against UAB and a Jan. 11 game against Middle Tennessee at E.A. Diddle Arena.

WESTERN KENTUCKY (8-4, 0-1) AT RICE (6-6, 1-0)

2 p.m., Saturday, Houston, Texas

Probable starters

WESTERN KENTUCKY

Dee Givens, f, 6-1, r-sr. (15.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg); Raneem Elgedawy, f, 6-4, jr. (16.8 ppg, 10.2 rpg); Meral Abdelgawad, g, 5-11, so. (7.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg); Whitney Creech, g, 5-8, sr. (16.3 ppg, 4.3 apg); Sherry Porter, g, 5-7, jr (8.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg).

RICE

Jasmine Smith, g, 5-7, so. (3.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg); Sydne Wiggins, g, 5-11, jr. (6.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg); Erica Ogwumike, g, 5-9, sr. (15.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg); Lauren Schwartz, f, 5-11, fr. (8.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg); Nancy Mulkey, c, 6-9, jr. (9.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg).

Television

ESPN+

Radio

ESPN 102.7 FM and 1450 AM in BG

Coaches

Greg Collins (28-19 second season; 28-19 overall) WKU; Tina Langley (88-55 fifth season; 88-55 overall) Rice.

Series record

The all time series is tied 3-all. (Rice won the last meeting 64-57 on March 15, 2018, in the C-USA semifinals in Frisco, Texas).

Last time out

WKU lost 61-54 at North Texas on Thursday; Rice won 81-43 at home against Marshall on Thursday.{&end}

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

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