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Western Kentucky forward Dee Givens shoots during the Lady Topper’s 69-65 win against UAB on Thursday at E.A. Diddle Arena.

Western Kentucky had no choice but to fight back after an 0-2 start in C-USA play, as second-year head coach Greg Collins noted after Thursday’s 69-65 win against UAB snapped a three-game skid in the team’s first game at E.A. Diddle Arena in over a month.

The Lady Toppers, who are undefeated at home this season, will need to take the next step in being competitive in the conference when Middle Tennessee travels to Bowling Green on Saturday for a 2 p.m. game.

“We talked about putting ourselves in this hole with our backs against the wall and really having to fight our way back out, and we need both of these at home,” Collins said after Thursday’s game. “We need to take care of business at home and get ourselves back in a spot where we can contend with the top teams in this conference.”

Thursday’s win over the Blazers helped WKU (9-5 overall, 1-2 C-USA) climb from the bottom of the standings, where it sat without a conference win along with two others. Now only Louisiana Tech is without a conference win, while only UTEP and Rice are unbeaten so far, with each team playing no more than three conference games thus far.

Middle Tennessee (10-5, 2-1) opened C-USA play with a loss against Old Dominion, but has won back-to-back games against Charlotte and Marshall.

“By beating UAB, now they have two losses, so if we take care of business on Saturday against Middle Tennessee – they’re always tough, they’re always well-coached and well prepared and it’ll be a dogfight just like tonight was, but I think our players are ready for that matchup – and if we can take care of business there, then they’ll have two losses and we’ll be one more step closer to putting ourselves back into a spot where we can contend for this thing,” Collins said.

Middle Tennessee was picked to finish second in the preseason conference standings, one spot above the Lady Toppers. Belmont is the only common opponent both have faced this season. WKU beat the Bruins 77-46 on Nov. 13 and Middle Tennessee lost to Belmont 68-57 on Dec. 14.

The Lady Raiders are led by Anastasia Hayes, who’s averaging 17.3 points, six rebounds and 4.7 assists after sitting out last season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules. As a freshman at Tennessee, she was named the SEC 6th Woman of the Year after averaging 9.3 points and 3.5 assists per game. Hayes is coming off a triple-double at Marshall – the program’s second and the first by a guard – with 17 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

Hayes was the team’s only player on the 2019-20 C-USA Preseason Team, but Middle Tennessee also returns the reigning conference Freshman of the Year in 5-foot-4 guard Taylor Sutton, who’s second on the team in scoring at 13.4 points per game. The Lady Raiders also get 12.7 points from Aislynn Hayes and 10.6 from Charity Savage to help boost the league’s fifth-highest scoring offense to 67.9 points per game.

Middle Tennessee also has the fifth-best scoring defense in C-USA, allowing an average of 61.3 points per game. WKU enters as the second-highest scoring offense at 72.7 points per game. Raneem Elgedawy, despite playing limited minutes due to foul trouble Thursday, is still the team’s scoring leader at 16.6 points per game, while Whitney Creech and Dee Givens average 15.8 and 15.5 points, respectively. Alexis Brewer and Meral Abdelgawad added big contributions against UAB with 13 and 12 points, respectively, in 25 minutes each.

“I think if we just play as a team that we can beat any team in this conference,” Brewer said after Thursday’s game. “It’s not really about what our opponents do, it’s about what we do.”

WKU boasts the best turnover margin in C-USA. The Lady Toppers force 19.6 turnovers per game to their 15.4, but Collins believes his team needs to do a better job capitalizing on those opportunities. WKU forced 18 turnovers, including 12 in the first half against a UAB team averaging fewer than 14, but only outscored the Blazers by two off turnovers. Middle Tennessee averages 15.6 turnovers per game.

“We turn everybody over. I think they had 18 turnovers tonight. Our biggest challenge is not turning people over, it’s turning those turnovers into more points,” Collins said after Thursday’s game. “We’ve got to get better at that. There’s too many times we create turnovers and follow it up with a turnover.”

The two teams split regular-season meetings last year, with WKU winning the latest contest at home March 7, 67-56. Givens, Creech, Elgedawy and Abdelgawad all scored in double figures in the win. Middle Tennessee has a 42-32 advantage in the all-time series, but WKU has won six of the last seven meetings.

WKU will follow Saturday’s game with three straight road contests against Old Dominion, Charlotte and Marshall, before returning home Jan. 30 to face FAU. The Lady Toppers will travel to Middle Tennessee for a second meeting Feb. 29.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE (10-5, 2-1) AT WESTERN KENTUCKY (9-5, 1-2)

2 p.m., Saturday, E.A. Diddle Arena

Probable starters

Middle Tennessee

Anastasia Hayes, g, 5-7, r-so. (17.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg); Taylor Sutton, g, 5-4, so. (13.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg); Aislynn Hayes, g, 5-6, fr. (12.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg); Courtney Whitson, f, 6-0, fr. (6.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg); Charity Savage, f, 6-0, sr. (10.6 ppg, 11.6 rpg).

WESTERN KENTUCKY

Dee Givens, f, 6-1, r-sr. (15.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg); Raneem Elgedawy, f, 6-4, jr. (16.6 ppg, 9.8 rpg); Meral Abdelgawad, g, 5-11, so. (7.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg); Whitney Creech, g, 5-8, sr. (15.8 ppg, 4.6 apg); Sherry Porter, g, 5-7, jr (7.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg).

Television

ESPN3

Radio

ESPN 102.7 FM and 1450 AM in BG

Coaches

Greg Collins (29-20 second season; 29-20 overall) WKU; Rick Insell (350-126 15th season; 350-126 overall) Middle Tennessee.

Series record

Middle Tennessee leads the series 42-32 (WKU won the last meeting 67-56 on March 7 in Bowling Green).

Last time out

WKU won 69-65 at home against UAB on Thursday; Middle Tennessee won 75-55 at home against Marshall on Thursday.{&end}

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

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